The Human Rights Watch's (HRW) 2014 World Report was "generalising and subjective" in its assessment of the police, the police ministry said on Tuesday.
In the report, HRW said: "Serious concerns remain about the ongoing conduct and capacity of the South African Police Service, both in terms of the use of force in general, as well as the ability to deal with riots in a rights-respecting manner."
The comment was made in a section dealing with the Farlam commission of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 44 people – 34 of them, mainly striking mineworkers, at the hands of the police – at Marikana in 2012.
"The fact of the matter is that each public protest takes a different dynamic, whether peaceful or violent," the ministry said in a statement.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa's spokesperson Zweli Mnisi said the report created the impression that the police used the same approach and operational plan for all for public protests, and created the impression that all police were brutal.
"We wish to reiterate the point that, as the ministry of police, we are concerned when we hear about reports of police who abuse their powers … We are equally concerned when we hear about police officers who are killed while responding to crime callouts," he said.
Mnisi said police entry level training had been changed to include basic crowd management, and that existing operational members of the public order policing unit had undergone refresher training. About 2 340 still had to do so. They were also being trained as first responders to assess potential crowd management situations and to understand the process of role function activation.
"During the last financial year, 12 399 crowd-related incidents were responded to and successfully stabilised, including 10 517 peaceful incidents such as assemblies, gatherings and meetings," said Mnisi. Of these, 1 882 were violent, and 3 680 arrests were made … As we have seen on many occasions, many protests have been accompanied by serious provocations, intimidations, public violence and even elements of criminality."
He said that when arrests were made, no one claimed responsibility for the actions, hampering investigations and convictions. The policing of protests also drew police away from normal duties, which meant resources had to be redirected.
"This can lead to gaps in normal policing, which are sharpened when police personnel deployed to the policing of such events are drawn from local police stations."
'We are a caring government'
Mnisi said the organisers of protests should be criminally charged if the events were not orderly and peaceful.
"There is no prevalent culture of impunity within the police service … We are a caring government and therefore there is no carte blanche that we give to our officers to kill innocent people who protest."
He said every police service had its rotten apples and South Africa was no exception, but that they were dealt with under the law.
"Police officials who have committed crimes are arrested, charged and prosecuted … The results are mixed, as some officials are convicted while others are acquitted … Every police official knows that the consequences will be severe for those implicated in criminal acts of any kind."
Mnisi said the public was protected by civilian oversight of the police by an independent directorate and a civilian secretariat. The ministry urged organisations such as HRW to objectively analyse policing, and invited them to communicate with it as they all worked to ensure people in South Africa were safe and felt safe. – Sapa