Editorial: Police damage SA's reputation

Much damage is done by the public perception that the police are generally unable to deal with crime. (Gallo)

Much damage is done by the public perception that the police are generally unable to deal with crime. (Gallo)

The nation mourns. Africa weeps. These are among the reactions to the senseless death of football star Senzo.

Meyiwa, killed in what seems to have been a robbery gone wrong. Other responses include “Bring back Bheki Cele”, as though a reversion to his leadership of the police would make a meaningful difference to South Africa’s crime pandemic.

That is just a knee-jerk reaction, along the lines of a call for the death penalty to be reinstated. It is a revenge fantasy born of anger, and it is a fantasy to believe that harsher penalties and a militarised police force whose members “shoot to kill” (criminals, presumably) would be solutions.

Upon Meyiwa’s death, the police announced that a top-level team would seek out the murderers and bring them to book. National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega noted how much damage could be done to South Africa’s “brand” if the country is seen as a lawless, violent, deadly place. She’s right, but a bit behind the times.

Phiyega does not acknowledge the huge damage to South Africa’s reputation that has been done already – by the Marikana massacre, by police dragging people to their deaths behind cars, and other instances of police violence.

Much damage is done by the public perception that the police are generally unable to deal with crime: they can’t prevent much of it and, if and when they do catch a few perpetrators, those perpetrators stand a high chance of getting off (if they don’t escape) because the criminal justice system is dysfunctional.

This year’s official crime statistics showed murder up by 5% year on year (and more than 9% over 10 years), with robbery and carjacking up by about 12% each. Set this against the fact that for the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder, conviction rates are about 7.5%.

Too much evidence is compromised and dodgy testimony accepted; too many dockets are lost or cases incompetently prepared. On top of all that, as the commission on policing in Khayelitsha reported, police communication with victims is appallingly bad, which hardly encourages people to report the crimes they suffer.

What Phiyega cannot say is that at a deeper level the problem has to do with policing itself, particularly with the lack of proper training and the lack of an overall vision for the police that goes beyond the pendulum swing of “Militarise!” versus “Demilitarise!”

If the police force can jump to attention when Meyiwa gets killed and put its top people on the case, why can’t it do that for other, less highly publicised crimes? Is it only because the media is focusing on the crime, and thus putting the pressure of the spotlight on the police, that they react in this way?

Why can’t the top cops – dedicated to finding Meyiwa’s killers – help to train other police officers so they, too, can become real crime fighters?



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