Are South Africa’s community police forums losing their impartiality?

2021-11-01

South Africa’s Community Police Forums (CPFs) were set up in the mid-1990s primarily to provide civilian oversight and improve police accountability and legitimacy. The forums represent both the community and the police within a particular precinct.

However CPFs are increasingly involved in supporting police operations, which is very different from what was initially intended. This poses serious risks by making it difficult for them to objectively hold the police to account. With soaring violent crime rates and police abuses, South Africa cannot afford to lose any police oversight systems.

At the birth of South Africa’s democracy, accountability and legitimacy were crucial for transforming the police from an oppressive force to a democratic service. CPFs were intended to facilitate that shift, and the extent to which they succeeded is still a matter of conjecture. But a recent Afrobarometer Survey, which shows that three-quarters of the public has very low or no trust in the police, suggests that they've failed when it comes to legitimacy.

Neither the constitution nor the SAPS Act foresaw an operational role for CPFs

Before the South African Police Service (SAPS) was established in 1995, ‘vicious political violence engulfed the country shortly after the unbanning of the liberation movements in February 1990,’ according to Eric Pelser, Head of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) ENACT organised crime programme. The SAPS was formed against this background. Its predecessors’ role (11 police forces counting those in the so-called homelands) was to protect the apartheid order. This meant the SAPS lacked legitimacy to police the new South Africa effectively.

Pelser says the African National Congress, during the negotiations for a new constitutional dispensation, realised a mechanism was needed to improve police-community relations and foster police legitimacy. There were also other reasons – such as the need for accountability, which would include civilian oversight. And, perhaps a little more surreptitiously, Pelser believes, the ANC felt that such a mechanism could help neutralise the police’s potential to destabilise the new democracy.

The interim constitution instructed that CPFs at police stations be included in the new 1995 SAPS Act and provided guidelines on their functions. These were to promote accountability and cooperation, monitor and evaluate police service delivery and advise the police on local policing needs. Section 18 of the act expanded on these functions to include community–police partnerships, promoting communication, improving transparency and promoting joint problem solving.

Neither the constitution nor the SAPS Act foresaw an operational role for CPFs. Together with the police, community representatives were meant to identify factors causing crime and violence and help find solutions.

In 1999, when most CPFs appeared ineffective, there were already signs that their roles may be changing. By then, the SAPS had also developed the idea of sector policing, which created a more active police–community partnership. Joint Sector Forums were established within police precincts where police members were expected to interact with community representatives to ensure participation in crime prevention initiatives.

SAPS faces major personnel cuts, so it’s unsurprising that CPFs now have a more active policing role

Sector Forums were intended as sub-forums of CPFs. But they also allowed civilians to become more involved in operational policing, such as conducting patrols with their private vehicles, clearly marked with stickers saying ‘Sector Policing’.

The SAPS’s 2018 Community in Blue concept further emphasised an operational role for ordinary citizens by ‘actively involving the community in safety and policing related matters, especially the community patrollers.’ Police guidelines made the CPF responsible for running the patroller programme within its precinct. More specifically, Community in Blue aimed to encourage reporting crime and suspicious behaviour, increase visibility to deter criminal activities, and ensure active community participation in crime prevention.

The 2018 Community Policing Strategy, the SAPS Annual Report 2019-2020, and other strategies and guidelines show that police are increasingly relying on CPFs to help run operationally active community-based structures and initiatives. The Community in Blue guidelines state that ‘Various community safety initiatives need to be integrated and orchestrated within the umbrella of the CPF, aligned to SAPS and within the CPF area of responsibilities.’

Community safety initiatives also include neighbourhood watches in urban areas and farm watches in rural areas. Communities themselves set these up in an attempt to take a more active role in their own security.

South Africa desperately needs more professional police, and consequently more accountability – not less

The operational support role of CPFs has therefore been growing and evolving. With civilians directly involved in policing, their ability to remain objective and hold police to account will become more difficult. Given that the SAPS faces substantial personnel cuts in the coming years, it’s unsurprising that community members are being given a more active role in policing functions. The police can’t deal with the country’s high and rising serious violent crime rate alone.

However this comes with serious risks. South Africa desperately needs a more professional police service and consequently more accountability – not less. A police organisation can only be effective if its members are held responsible for enforcing the law and providing a public safety service. This means proactively removing those officers who use their official powers for their own or narrow gains.

The dominant culture of the SAPS has long been characterised by an approach that sees communities as ‘with us or against us.’ This has weakened police accountability and enabled widespread brutality and corruption.

Strengthening community involvement in operational policing in such an environment may see police acting in the interests of very limited sections of society, while simultaneously weakening local oversight. This is not the intention, but effective community–police partnerships require high levels of police accountability. The SAPS needs to strengthen rather than weaken the ability of CPFs to provide civilian oversight.

Johan Burger, Consultant, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS

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Photo: SAPoliceService

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