/ 31 October 2007

Warning against closing elite police units

Closing specialised police units may result in a loss of informer networks, expertise and team spirit, a seminar on policing in South Africa heard on Wednesday.

”To destroy this is a very serious thing that needs to be thought through,” said a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), Johan Burger.

”Most of these informers will not talk to anybody else, even if paid. If you are removed from that unit you close down that informer,” he argued.

These units further fostered a ”feeling of uniqueness” among their members, which boosted morale.

Their expertise was recognised in courts and they could train their own, which no amount of formal training could replace.

While this had not been proven in studies, Burger said it was a ”major concern”.

He said the former narcotics bureau had been the ”sharp end” of the police’s fight against drugs.

Merging its members with other units that had a broader focus, or sending them to police stations, would lead to a loss of expertise and capability.

Burger also argued that restructuring the police force — which aimed to bring more officers to police stations — was based on the wrong premise.

More than 70% of rapes and about 80% of murders happened among people who knew each other.

”How do you set yourself a target [to combat something] you don’t control?” he asked.

Burger said the police lacked ”experience and expertise” as well as ”command and control” at police-station level, which justified attempts to strengthen this area.

He warned that increasing numbers might not necessarily work.

He cited an experiment conducted in the United States at three police stations located in similar areas. The first station reduced its policing to dealing only with emergencies. The second maintained its police presence and the third beefed up its staff complement and visibility.

”There was no change in crime in all three areas. The only difference was a huge number of complaints against the police at the third station.”

Part of police restructuring plans included reducing the levels of command from four to three by eliminating the area level. This would leave a head office, provincial levels and police stations.

Burger argued that area offices performed an important oversight function, which included regular inspections.

”One reason why police stations increasingly under-perform is because of the absence of the oversight function.”

While restructuring was well-intentioned, Burger said it could have a positive effect over the short term. In the long run there was ”huge potential” for damage.

He said history had shown that integrating special units into the police led to neglect in certain areas.

When the railways police was integrated into the police in the 1980s, the railways suffered, he said.

”History shows us that we have to be careful about just shutting things off.”

All was not doom and gloom, however, he said. Crime overall had dropped by 20% in the last few years.

”It can’t all be attributed to the police, but they have made a valuable contribution.

”They take an unnecessarily big portion of the blame for the fact that crime looks the way it does.”

Effective communication

Director Hannes Swart of the police said having three levels of command was intended to allow for effective communication and allocation of resources, as well as to empower station commissioners.

”Migrating” senior officers to police stations was an interim arrangement that ended as soon as there was a drop in crime rates.

”That could take forever,” he added.

Several current and former police officers present at the seminar argued that the process had been done without consultation.

A former Western Cape police officer, who asked not to be named, said: ”That this is an interim arrangement which can go on forever is very disturbing. The morale of the police is at rock bottom.”

He said restructuring in 1995, 1998 and 2001 had led to an exodus of members.

Swart said that with 165 000 police members, it was ”just not possible” to communicate with all of them.

”The interim strategy was communicated,” he said.

Police officers would not be allocated evenly to the country’s 1 112 police stations. Special attention would be given to 169 stations located in the areas where more than 50% of the country’s violent crime occurred.

Swart said the money allocated by Finance Minister Trevor Manuel in his medium-term budget on Tuesday would go towards improving IT networks, training detectives and increasing the capacity of the forensic laboratories.

Turning to the 2010 World Cup, ISS researcher Bilkis Omar said public order would be a challenge for the police due to the high crime rate.

If the police were sufficiently resourced there was ”no doubt” they would manage, given their previous experience with international events.

She, however, warned that the media spotlight South Africa would find itself under could result in an increase in protest marches, which would stretch police resources.

The ISS would undertake a comprehensive study in 2008 that would look at crime and policing broadly, whether the restructuring process was justifiable and to what extent it worked. — Sapa