Police data manipulated to gain crowd control resources

South African police officers monitor a protest in Majakaneng in North West. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

South African police officers monitor a protest in Majakaneng in North West. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

A new research report says the police’s data on crowd gatherings – what are often wrongly called “violent protests” – is being manipulated to motivate for additional resources for public order policing.

The data reveals that police are regularly conflating “unrest-related incidents” and “violent protests”, as captured in their records, which leads to a belief that there is a need to clamp down on violence.

The police define “crowd incidents” as “peaceful” and “unrest”. Between 1997 and 2013, 90% of these “incidents” were peaceful.

But “unrest” does not mean that these protests were violent – police regularly conflate these terms leading to a misconception about the nature of protests or gatherings.

“Thus the numbers of incidents in which violence occurred is likely to be far less than stated,” the report says.

The report, authored by three researchers – Professor Peter Alexander, Carin Runciman and Boitumelo Maruping – was released on Wednesday.  The report details 156 230 registered “crowd incidents” from 1997 to 2013.

Confusing language
But crowd incidents are not necessarily protests, despite the confusing language about this used by government officials, and the report says a high number of these are actually “recreational, cultural or religious” events.

The data reveals that the number of registered incidents declined after 2006 “largely due to the reorganisation of public order policing”.

“This underlines the fact reality that the statistics chronicle police activity rather than public events per se,” the report says.

“Peaceful incidents” and “unrest” is determined by the character of police intervention.
The researchers say “unrest” does not mean “violent”.

The report says cabinet ministers, senior police officers and even President Jacob Zuma regularly use catch-all phrases like “protests” without being truthful about how many of these are violent at all.

A perception is created that protest must be clamped down on.

‘Ambit of the law’
In his 2015 State of the Nation address, Zuma said: “We appeal that these protests should be within the ambit of the law and must be peaceful as stated in the Constitution. The police successfully brought under control 13 575 recorded public order incidents, comprising 1 907 unrest-related and 11 668 peaceful incidents.”

But the researchers say he moved from “protests” to “incidents” without saying these are not the same thing. “Thus leaving the audience with the impression that they are probably the same.”

The research says 86% of “crowd-related incidents” are actually peaceful events such as sports matches or religious events.

“These do not need to be, and by definition were not, ‘brought under control’ ... His choice of the word ‘control’ is especially interesting, because it was a concept used under apartheid but replaced by a philosophy of ‘crowd management’ after the transition.”

For example, in September 2014, police commissioner general Riah Phiyega and other officials told Parliament’s portfolio committee on police that levels of “violent protest action” were steadily increasing year on year.

“Here, there is a conflation between unrest-related incidents and “violent protests”, which are not the same,” the researchers say in their report.

‘Not all unrest is violent’
“From our analysis we have demonstrated that not all incidents classified as unrest are violent. In analysis conducted for a forthcoming research report on protests, we found that only 54% of protests sampled were violent. Thus the number of incidents in which violence occurred is likely to be far less than stated.” 

In that briefing, Phiyega used the so-called escalating “violent protest action” to explain why the police would be spending an extra R3.3-billion per year on public order policing. And she said the police would have to expand their budget by 122%.

“Misrepresentation of numbers was central to justifying massively increased spending,” the report says.

Runciman said it is difficult to speculate as to why the police are misrepresenting their data, or if they are doing this on purpose.

But she said it would appear that the primary reason is to motivate for more money for public order policing.

She said this feeds into what the researchers say is a “wider trend”, where so-called protests are increasingly criminalised.

“The most important thing that emerges from this research is that protests can be incidents, but the [police] data documents far more than just protests, so it’s very problematic when these number of incidences are conflated with protests,” she said.

“We demonstrate that you cannot use crowd unrest statistics and call them protests.”

Police categorisation
Police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale denied that the police had conflated “incidents” and “protests”. 

“Any crowd management action is defined as an incident, which will either be peaceful or unrest. In other words ‘incidents’ include all protest actions, peaceful gatherings and pure unrest incidents that cannot be justified as crowd management incidents, like taxi violence, gang violence, ethnic, racial violence, demonstration, political meetings, road barricade, revenge attacks by a small group of people,” Makgale said. 

“If the protest actions continue for an extended period, we register it as one incident on a daily basis. For example, the community of Malamulele protested for over 14 days, therefore it was registered as a new incident every day as we have to deploy each day after conducting a risk assessment.”

Makgale said the police had a duty to police all gatherings, be they peaceful or violent. 

“In view of the above, the implications are that, in general, all assemblies, gatherings, meetings, demonstrations and so on will be classified as ‘crowd management’ [peaceful] incidents as we have to deploy officers from the public order policing unit. It is a specialist unit in crowd management,” he said. 

Makgale said violent incidents are not defined by “police intervention” but by the actions of participants who “violate or infringe on the rights of others”.

“Violent actions include blocking the streets, throwing stones or vandalising property. It is not the police action that defines crowd management, but the nature of actions by the participants, for example, stone-throwing, shooting at and assault on any person.

“These are incidents of gatherings, barricades, etcetera, during which violence erupted and the SAPS or any Metropolitan Police takes or needs to take action to restore peace and order. In terms of these incidents, a case docket will be registered as a crime would have been committed,” he said.

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics.  Read more from Sarah Evans

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