Saturday, May 31, 2008

Police Brutality - Letter to Business Day, 25th March 2008

SIR - It may be argued by some that the escalation of violent crime is cause for the police to employ more strident use of force in dealing with potential criminals. However, the recent incidence of police brutality in Stellenbosch illustrates how dangerous this notion can be. The police service’s primary purpose is to protect people from harm and to enforce the law in a manner that seeks to avoid physical coercion under all possible circumstances. When this mandate is overstepped it is ordinary citizens who feel the full boot of the state on the backs of their necks – not only criminals. It is incumbent upon all of us to see that the licence we give to law enforcement agencies to deal strongly with perpetrators of crime is used in a manner which is proportionate and justifiable. If this licence is abused by certain individuals it should promptly be taken away.

The actions of the SAPS also shed some uncomfortable light on the bodies designed to regulate their activities. This will be another difficult litmus test for the efficacy of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD). Punitive measures are clearly in order for those responsible for beating young people, pulling their hair and spraying them with mace in what amounts to assault and intimidation.

The accusation of excessive displays of force was recently used by the Minister of Safety and Security as a ruse to justify the reigning in of the Scorpions (DSO). Clearly the SAPS is permeated by the same heavy-handed attitude of which the Scorpions stand accused. If that body is indeed merged into the SAPS (as appears to be the case by unanimous executive decree) will this culture disappear? That is doubtful.

The Stellenbosch fiasco, the xenophobic attacks against immigrants in the Central Methodist Church, as well as the abuse of traders in Mitchell’s Plain are evidence of a growing sense of impunity among the police reminiscent of the dark days of the 1970s and 80s. This will only alienate ordinary citizens from the work of law enforcers and cultivate an attitude of non-collaboration and mistrust. Claims about “community-based policing” are merely rhetorical unless the police can be trusted to deal with the populace with respect to their dignity (as their own code of conduct and the Constitution implores them to do). The good faith of the people is the most valuable asset the police have in the formidable task of fighting crime in South Africa. That faith is rapidly being squandered.

David Ansara

This letter appeared in the Business Day, 25th March 2008.

For the CCTV footage of the attacks see YouTube - Police Raid on The Bohemia

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