Politicians talking tough on crime could well be interpreted by police as a licence to employ violent law-enforcement tactics.
“In the past year phrases such as ‘shoot the bastards’, ‘shoot to kill’, ‘no mercy for criminals’, ‘war on crime’, ‘war on drugs’ and ‘zero tolerance’ have increasingly peppered public statements by political and police leadership,” said Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
He was speaking at an ISS seminar in Cape Town last Wednesday convened in the light of what he called the “official rhetoric of violence and ill-tolerance that has seemed to gain momentum in public space”.
Burger chaired the seminar, which included police corruption expert Andrew Faull, David Bruce from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and acting executive director of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) Elias Valoyi.
President Jacob Zuma has complained that the country’s criminal laws are too lenient on suspects and that they need to “bite”.
Burger argued that this, as well as strong language on crime from Minister of Police Nathi Mthetwa and his deputy Fikile Mbalula, signalled a shift in policing from a “strategic defensive” policy, characterised by elements such as strong community involvement at the advent of democracy in 1994, to a more “strategic offensive” position.
“This will include a reorganisation of the criminal justice system and a tougher approach to crime and criminals,” said Burger. “In addition this is implicit in the name change from ‘safety and security’ to ‘police’; there appears to be a subtle shift in favour of crime-focused policing and law enforcement.”
But tension has developed among police members about observing the human-rights ethos in policing and politicians’ and police management’s insistence that the police should do “whatever is necessary” to thwart criminal activity.
“This contradiction and the pressure placed on police to deliver is evident in reports of police manipulation of crime statistics and the continued use of torture,” Burger said.
Last week the Independent Complaints Directorate told Parliament that the deaths as a result of police action or of suspects in police custody had increased by 17% compared with 2007-08.
The environment of lawlessness — as in the case of taxi drivers wanting different rules of the road to apply to them — could very well justify the police’s new “offensive” stance, Burger said.
But he recommended a balance between the need to make an impact on crime and the “need to retain a sound relationship with communities”.
Faull, who recently conducted research at various police stations in Gauteng on factors that drive corruption, also urged for caution from politicians. In his study he found that a “code of silence” on corrupt activities in the police was prevalent among the police members he interviewed.
Faull said this meant that the “culture of integrity” in the police was already “flawed” and that it is this “flawed” environment, filled with “integrity violations”, that leads to the police using methods that are outside the remit of South Africa’s human rights-based legal system.
Statements made by politicians could become part of the police’s “official discourse”, he said, leading to rough tactics within the police being acceptable.
Bruce said that strong statements by Mthetwa and Mbalula indicate an “orientation towards a more robust system of law enforcement”. He said such statements could be interpreted variously as “political rhetoric or hot-air”, as the gloves being off or as a nudge towards better policing.
“Talk about ‘teaching people a lesson’ or ‘showing no mercy’ could be interpreted to mean that the police should punish their opponents, but it should be clear that this is not their job,” Bruce said. “It is probably not the intention of the current ministers to communicate this kind of message, but nevertheless statements of this kind are open to this kind of interpretation.”