Police need policing
On a Saturday morning in October last year, Adelaide Ngongwana was on her way to use a communal toilet in the informal settlement of RR section, in Khayelitsha, Western Cape.
A frail woman in her late 70s, Adelaide feared being attacked by criminals in this area - a justified fear given Khayelitsha's disproportionately high levels of violent crime. Using toilets far from homes can be life-threatening. Residents are frequently assaulted, robbed, raped and murdered en route.
While Adelaide was unlocking the toilet, she felt a sharp pain in her thigh. She had been shot. Police had opened fire in her direction while pursuing suspects.
Adelaide begged the officers to take her to the local clinic . After police forced her to walk to their vehicle, she was taken to the clinic. On arrival, the officers put her on a stretcher and left .
Sadly, this is not an isolated case. Numerous incidents of police abuse are reported each year. Many more go unreported. The images of Ficksburg protestor Andries Tatane being brutally beaten and fatally shot are indelibly marked in our collective national consciousness. The examples of police treatment and choice of tactics in the cases of Ngongwana and Tatane result in tense relationships between communities and police. Instead of collaborative efforts to ensure areas are safer, the incidents widen the divide between police and communities as mutual mistrust is fostered.
Ngongwana's story was brought to the attention the Social Justice Coalition, a community NGO focusing on issues of safety and security, working in Khayelitsha's informal settlements. It seemed clear police had acted irresponsibly by opening fire in what was a crowded, public space. They had put innocent lives in danger.
As a result, the SJC, on behalf of Ngongwana, lodged a complaint with the Independent Complaints Directorate, a Chapter 9 Institution mandated with, among other things, "efficient investigation of alleged misconduct and criminality by SAPS members". After dozens of phone calls and e-mails and more than seven months of waiting, the response indicated that no action had been taken against the officers.
How can we prevent such incidents from occurring?
At a recent workshop on Police Force, various law enforcement officials, security and policing specialists and civil society met to discuss this issue. It was established that in South Africa there is no national, consolidated use-of-force policy. Developed in many countries, such policies empower police to work in a way that minimises risk to themselves, and to the public. It is important for the public to know police have a strict protocol to follow - for safety reasons, but also to ensure police do not take the law into their own hands and interpret it as they see fit.
Despite a tough image, police need to be sensitive towards the public and its needs. Today we have a police service, not a force. Police are no longer used to crush resistance and silence voices; they are tasked with preventing crime, ensuring neighbourhoods are safe and upholding and promoting democratic values, non-discrimination and human rights. Therefore, any use-of-force policy should be guided by the Constitution and the rule of law.
Police are put in positions where they have to make difficult, split-second decisions. Theirs is a high-stress job, fraught with danger and one that often elicits negative responses from the media and the public. It is also understood that the police, at times, will need to employ force - to apprehend, to protect themselves and the public - that will result in injury or death. The nature of their work necessitates strict guidelines for them to operate safely and in line with the law.
Despite the necessity for such a policy, its effectiveness will be circumscribed if it does not exist in conjunction with other initiatives.
In poor communities, like RR section, police are often viewed with a degree of mystery and fear. But there are other instances where increased engagement between police and communities would be welcomed and beneficial to both.
Community policing forums go some way towards this, but there need to be, for example, police liaison officers who work at police stations that community members and local organisations can engage with.
Police officers need to be better trained to handle high-pressure, hazardous situations. Apart from being able to handle a firearm and employ non-lethal tactics to subdue a suspect, police need to be sensitive to the fact that force should only be used when necessary.
While these initiatives would all be invaluable in preventing police abuse, when incidents occur there needs to be accessible and timeous recourse that is accessible to all, including the poor and the marginalised.
The ICD, soon to become the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, needs to be able to handle cases at a quicker rate and keep complainants up-to-date on the status of investigations. A lack of recourse undermines the legitimacy of the system, erodes public trust in the accountability of police and government, and sours relationships that need to be fostered for improved safety and security.
Ngongwana felt betrayed by the police. She was offered no counselling. Police were interested in speaking to her only when it related to the case they were opening against the suspects. Ngongwana felt that because she was poor, police did not view her life as important. She lived in fear of retribution after lodging the complaint.
Sadly, Ngongwana died earlier this month from respiratory illness. Despite the effort and resources committed to the case, no progress had been made in finding justice for Ngongwana.
- Bregman and Bici work for the Social Justice Coalition