CHAPTER 6: The role of metro police and SAPS Visible Police in crowd management


The Role of Metro Police and SAPS Visible Police in Crowd Management

A Review of Public Order Policing Capacity



Monograph No 138, October 2007


Bilkis Omar

The case of the Ekuruhleni Metro Police Department


The Ekuruhleni Metro Police Department (EMPD), established in February 2002, is divided into three regions (northern, eastern and southern). Each region is in turn made up of ten precincts. The department has a staff component of 457 serving a population of 2.4 million people, giving a ratio of one police officer to every 5 252 people (Newham 2006:2).

The department’s mandate includes securing municipal property, municipal bylaw enforcement, traffic law enforcement, and crime prevention. The mandate does not extend to conducting criminal investigations or detaining suspects – these functions are the responsibility of the SAPS. The crime prevention component consists of the following specialised service units: Freeway Unit, K9 Unit, Intervention Unit, CLU-Information Gathering, Equestrian Unit, Oliver Tambo International Airport, and Public Order Policing Unit.

To qualify to be an officer in the metro police department, applicants must have a matriculation certificate and a driver’s licence. Officers undergo a six-month training programme in traffic law and crime prevention. With the inclusion of the SAPS training qualification that is being planned, the training curriculum will be extended to one year (Naidoo 2007).

Establishment of EMPD’s public order unit

Metro police officers (mainly those responsible for traffic policing) are very often the first to encounter crowd management incidents, including those that have the potential to turn violent (Ally 2006a). As first respondents, EMPD officers were often not aware of crowd management procedures, and at times did not follow correct procedures. Because of this, a directive to train metro police officers in crowd management was issued by the National Commissioner of the SAPS in 2005.

In January 2006, the Public Order Police (POP) unit of the Ekuruhleni Metro Police Department was established, consisting of 38 committed EMPD officers (Abbot 2007). The activities of these officers are governed by the Regulation of Gatherings Act 205, as well as the SAPS Act 68 of 1995 (Amendment 64 of 2000).

Given the recent establishment of such public order units within metro police departments, and the potentially prominent role that metro officers play in crowd management, it was decided that the ISS research project should also briefly review their functioning. A questionnaire, similar to the one used for the CCUs, was developed. Questions regarding officers’ compliance and adherence to the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA) were asked. Responses from officers illustrated that the officers did understand the RGA:

‘Public order policing is about meeting the objectives of Act 205 regarding the rights of people’


‘Democracy gives people rights, they are frustrated with service delivery issues, and SA is hosting the 2010 world cup, to monitor and manage gatherings within the framework’


‘To protect public and property in case of public violence, not harass people when on strike’

‘We adhere to the law even if the march is unlawful because marchers have the right to strike’


Asked whether they believed their training was sufficient to enable them to do their job, the EMPD officers noted that more training on the Regulation of Gatherings Act and joint training with the SAPS was necessary. One officer said that they needed revision courses on the provisions of the Act because, due to overwork, they had received no in-service training on the subject.

Challenges related to training

The initiative to train the metro officers began in 2005 with eight EMPD trainers being trained by the SAPS in crowd management (Abbot 2007). The EMPD training division currently has eight qualified trainers. Four concentrate on tactical training, and the other four focus on ‘soft’ skills, i.e. theory, accidents, and notices. The training division is responsible for training of in-service trainers, new recruits at colleges, crowd management training, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), law enforcement, traffic enforcement, and shooting.

Thus far, approximately 65 EMPD officers have been trained in crowd management. These officers have also completed the Platoon Members Training (PMT) course of the SAPS, which includes theory and practical training.

Such specialist capability has to be maintained to be effective, which means regular in-service training as well as working together as a unit. It appears that this is taking place: ‘The EMPD POP unit does not have a fixed in-service training schedule, but in-service training does take place every two weeks’ (Naidoo 2007). Responses from officers about the in-service training schedule and its frequency could not, however, confirm this. Some officers stated that they did in-service training twice a month, while a few stated that it happened every two months. One officer said that there was no in-service training at all, and that they only did ‘demonstrations for guests’. 

These findings suggest that in-service training is not a priority for the POP unit. This was confirmed by one of the trainers who said, ‘On paper, training is scheduled for every Wednesday…the officers are very motivated, but there is no time for training because the needs in the field take precedence’ (Abbot 2007).

Metro precinct officers (i.e. those that are not part of the POP unit) are also being provided with crowd management training by the EMPD trainers, even though there is already a fully committed POP platoon. The rationale is that all metro officers should be able to deal with any type of situation, especially one that has the potential to turn violent, whether this amounts to an angry crowd demanding justice for a criminal act, or spontaneous strike action. Metro precinct officers are usually first on the scene and therefore require the appropriate training.

Precinct officers have at times proved to be overly zealous in controlling crowds. An EMPD public order officer said:

Precinct officers who are not trained in crowd management and who arrive at the incident first, panic and shoot, and the crowds become uncontrollable. They don’t act within the framework of crowd management.

The training of metro precinct officers is therefore well timed and appropriate, even if only to ensure that restraint is practised. It is vital that in-service training also be maintained to supplement the formal training.

A pressing issue that emerged from this study is the absence of a mechanism or process to enable the SAPS to assess the training of metro officers. The SAPS national training division responsible for the initial training of metro officers does not perform quality assurance on its training. Reports on officers’ training are submitted by the trainers to the director of training, as well as to the three regional directors of the EMPD policing areas. But there are no unit standards and no principles for maintaining the training of the EMPDs (Naidoo 2007).

EMPD relationship with the CCUs

The absence of a training assessment mechanism noted above points to more serious issues – the compliance or non-compliance of metro officers with procedures for crowd management, and the resultant impact on their relationship with the specialist Crowd Control Unit (CCU) members.

Most EMPD officers regarded their relationship with CCUs as ‘good’, and confirmed that ‘the CCUs know and comply with the requirements of the RGA’. However some EMPD officers said that CCU members were ‘too soft’, ‘lenient’, ‘have fear of marchers’, and that ‘they use different steps to calm the crowd’, or ‘they don’t give instructions to use force’.

Interviews with CCU members provided a different perspective. They described their relationship with metro officers as generally ‘not good’. They maintained that metro officers did not always comply with the Regulations of Gatherings Act and the procedures it stipulates. Some of the violations referred to were as follows:

‘They don’t negotiate with the crowds’


‘They use maximum force’

‘They are quick to shoot at the crowds’

‘They use live ammunition’

‘They are trigger-happy’


‘They don’t respect the marchers’ rights to march and are not tolerant of marchers’

‘They need re-training’


With respect to their relationship with the CCUs, concerns were that: ‘their commands are unlike those used by CCUs’, and that ‘they don’t respect the fact that CCUs are in overall command at a scene’. These perceptions suggest that whatever training the EMPD officers have received has not been sufficient. The problem has been exacerbated by the at times provocative and disrespectful behaviour of EMPD officers as stated above.

Not all CCU members said that their relationship with ‘metro officers’ was poor, although these positive views were not expressed in relation to the EMPD. The Vaal Rand CCU was incorporated into the Springs unit as part of the SAPS restructuring in 2006. The Vaal region does not have a metro police department, but instead has a Traffic Department. Former Vaal Rand CCU members’ regarded their experience with the Vaal traffic police as positive.

In general, the CCU members’ opinions of EMPD’s capacity for public order policing gives cause for concern. There is no escaping the impression that EMPD officers have at times been remiss in applying the law when performing crowd management duties. When questioned, the officers appeared to know the procedure to follow in operations. They said that they first analyse the situation and then negotiate with the crowds. If the situation worsens, they give the crowd a warning and ask them to disperse. If the crowd becomes violent they use tonfas, and if the crowd throws stones, they use shields to block. If the crowd becomes uncontrollable, officers said they would fire rubber bullets, aimed to ricochet at a 45-degree angle. Officers did mention that they had had to fire bullets in many instances. They also said that they would only fire live rounds if their lives were in danger.

These responses indicate that EMPD public order members are aware of the law and of their role in crowd management. Further questioning of the POP officers elicited responses to the effect that it is not the public order officers of the EMPD who are in violation of the RGA, but rather the precinct officers who have been over zealous.

Command and control challenges

When metro police officers and SAPS members do have to work together, it is vital to ensure a clear line of command. According to the powers and authority vested in SAPS officials through legislation such as the SAPS Act and the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977, the police must have overall command in all criminal cases (Day 2007a). This includes crowd management, when police actions may result in a criminal charge or some form of civil liability (Day 2007a).

While most metro officers accepted that SAPS CCUs are in overall command at an incident, it was disturbing to note that according to one metro inspector: ‘CCUs are in charge unless it’s a junior officer, then the metro senior officer is in charge. If the Chief [of the EMPD] is at an event, he takes overall command, even over SAPS’. Misunderstandings of this sort during an incident can cause confusion, and a wrong command can be fatal.

According to the SAPS Act, crowd management is not the function of metro police: their functions are limited to traffic regulation, by-law enforcement and crime prevention. There is thus no legal mandate for the metro police to undertake crowd control unless they are assisting the SAPS CCUs (Day 2007a). In any case, metro officers have not been trained as First Line Operational Managers (FLOM) or in Operational Commanders Training (OCT) (Day 2007a). As a consequence, metro officers cannot assume operational responsibility in a situation that requires the controlling of crowds. They do not have a legal mandate to act alone or to assume command at a mass gathering. Yet despite this clear legal imperative, there appears to be confusion in the EMPD with regard to what to do if the SAPS officer holds a junior rank to the most senior EMPD officer present.

Capacity and equipment constraints


Metro officers indicated that the number of trained crowd management officers in the EMPD is not sufficient for the size of the Ekurhuleni area which consists of nine municipalities amalgamated into one. One member estimated that the southern region alone consists of a population of one million people. With the current number of POP officers this would amount to only ten to 11 POP officers per region. Other reasons given for the need for more members were the upcoming national elections, political problems in the area, and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

The fitness levels of officers seems to vary. Some officers said they do physical training a few times a week during work hours, while others said there is no physical training.

The age of officers is also a capacity issue. Many officers said that 40 years should be the cut-off age for POP officers. They stated that older officers should be used for negotiations and to groom younger officers. On the other hand, some officers indicated that the older officers were experienced and fit despite their age.


Metro public order officers use specialised equipment such as shields, helmets, tonfas, pepper spray, stun grenades and shin guards to carry out their functions. The leg or shin guards are additional items that regular SAPS members do not have. Metro POP officers are not equipped with bulletproof vests, although measurements for these have been taken in the past. One officer stated that ‘you have to hope and pray that you don’t get shot’.

The EMPD has three Nyalas, but these are old and in need of frequent servicing. Other vehicles include a water cannon and ordinary vans that can carry two to three members per vehicle. Officers have stated that they need trailers in which to store equipment to prevent scratching of helmets and shields.

Metro officers are issued with a 9mm pistol as a personal sidearm. They are also issued with 12-guage shotguns or pump guns and 12-gauge Strykers with six and 12 round magazine capacity for crowd control purposes. The ammunition provided for the 12-gauge firearms are the blue baton rounds for outdoor shooting and the peach baton rounds for indoor use.

Other challenges

An issue that emerged during the research relates to concerns about the additional fees paid to metro departments for services rendered at events. When a sporting or musical event is hosted and metro police officers are required to provide traffic services, the event organisers are required to pay the metro departments directly. There are different views about this requirement. One argument in favour of payment is the exorbitant cost to local councils of maintaining the metro police departments. Others contend that metro police, like the SAPS, should be regarded as essential services and should not be paid the additional fees.

The role of SAPS Visible Police in crowd management

SAPS Visible Police (VISPOL) are based at police stations and tasked with crime prevention duties. Their role in crowd management events is to prevent crime and gather intelligence by patrolling the area, speaking with police informers, and ensuring the safety of both participants and non-participants.

Since 2006, VISPOL members have received training in crowd management in order to prepare them for the 2010 FIFA World Cup and to provide assistance to CCU members. Station members will now be tasked to manage level one and two marches and gatherings, i.e. medium to low risk marches (Ally 2006b). VISPOL members will also, once training is completed, be equipped with crowd management gear and will undergo maintenance training every three months (Ally 2006b).

The performance of VISPOL members in gatherings thus far has not been very positive. While many East Rand and Johannesburg CCU members said that VISPOL members had assisted them at gatherings, just as many CCU members said that VISPOL members had left the scene when the CCU arrived, and had not even carried out their crime prevention functions. CCU members further stated that VISPOL members lacked discipline, and were envious of the CCUs’ status as a specialist component.

The EMPD members’ relationship with VISPOL members was similar. While some EMPD officers said the relationship was good, others stated that there was professional jealousy because metro officers also performed crime prevention functions. They also said that VISPOL members expected them to concentrate only on traffic law enforcement.

CCU members also stated that VISPOL members did not know the procedures for crowd management. This is understandable given that VISPOL members were not, until recently, trained in crowd management. In this regard, the new initiative to train VISPOL members in crowd management is laudable. It will, however, be important to monitor how this function fits into the priorities of station commissioners; crime prevention operations and the containment of crime are sure to take preference.

Conclusion and recommendations

The establishment of public order units within metro police departments is sensible and beneficial. Not only do these officers supplement SAPS CCUs, but they also acquire vital knowledge and skills that allow them to respond appropriately to situations. The challenge lies in the establishment and maintenance of a cooperative working relationship between metro police and the SAPS CCUs. While the Policing Co-ordinating Committees, the National Forum for Municipal Police Services, and joint crime combating operations involving the SAPS and the metro police have ‘resulted in generally improved relationships’ (Newham 2006:4), responses elicited from this research show that the relationship needs to be carefully fostered.

The views of EMPD officers about the CCUs’ approach to managing public gatherings is worrying. CCU members have shed a long history of brutality and repression in public order policing. Changing organisational attitudes was a great challenge that took several years and required much training. These changes have borne fruit in the way in which the CCU members conduct themselves at gatherings and demonstrations. Their more restrained and professional behaviour should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness or cowardice.

With regard to the role of SAPS visible police members, it is not clear whether the training of VISPOL members in crowd management will be a sustainable activity. If in-service training is not undertaken, the initiative is sure to fail. Maintaining in-service training once every three months, even for a full week each time, does not seem adequate, given that crowd management is a newly acquired skill.

The following recommendations have been drawn from the research:

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