Crime: Changes leave police in a muddle

Tinkering with the structure of the police force had damaged its ability to combat crime. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Tinkering with the structure of the police force had damaged its ability to combat crime. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

When, in the middle of last year, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille called for the army to be deployed to combat drug and gang violence in the province, her request was denied.

Not long after that, following the Marikana massacre, the presidency announced a military deployment (up to the end of January this year) to maintain stability in areas around the country.

In 2009, the safety and security department proposed military escorts for cash-in-transit vans, but that was never implemented. Also last year, some military units largely responsible for border patrols were ordered to act as guardians for rhinos under threat from poachers.

Plans to deploy civilians in an organised way to fight crime have likewise come and gone; the ANC's 2007 resolution to re-establish street committees and the 2009 idea to have unemployed youth patrol streets came to little.

But experts believe that tinkering with the structure of the police force itself may have done more serious and lasting damage to its ability to combat crime than short-lived intervention plans.

After 1994, the police department was turned into a civilian service partially in the hope that greater trust from communities would help officers to combat crime. In 2010, the service was formally remilitarised, partially in the hope that doing so would instil greater discipline among members and partially in the hope that a sterner approach, on a level not quite shoot-to-kill, would instil fear among criminals.

In the aftermath of Marikana, where cops killed 34 striking mineworkers, and instances of police brutality, the military ranks remain – but the emphasis on countering violence with violence has largely disappeared.

Those swings in approach have come with an increase in the number of police members – by about 60% in the past 10 years – which officials have admitted saw quantity put before quality.
In the meanwhile, change has been the only constant in the approach to specific types of crime.

Over the past decade, combating drugs, for instance, went from being the sole task of a dedicated unit to a broader part of organised-crime policing, then to being split between the Hawks and local stations, then back to part of organised- crime policing within the main force. In the meantime, drug-related crime and violence have become an increasing headache in terms of overall crime levels.

"These guys are so busy with the reorganisations that they don't have the opportunity to focus on their primary tasks," says Institute for Security Studies researcher Johan Burger, who spent three and a half decades in the police department. "There is all this uncertainty about whether your unit and your job will exist next month, there is a lack of intelligence, and all these other problems."

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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