Drop the Green Paper - let's consult

Policing policies should be reviewed through open public participation and not through the narrow process adopted by the South Africa's Green Paper on Policing.

The Green Paper on Policing that is currently open for comment sets out to review existing policing policies and to formulate broad medium and long-term policy directions for the SAPS. It also aims at redressing ‘negative perceptions’ such as those arising from allegations of excessive use of force and police brutality. But the draft policy document has been written behind closed doors, and the consultation process is now being rushed through, leaving little room for meaningful public input. Apart from being a flawed process this is a significant missed opportunity to rebuild much needed trust between the police and the communities they serve.

Almost 20 years after the newly elected government faced the colossal task of fundamentally changing the policies of the apartheid government, it is time to confidently step back and assess where we are at as far as policing is concerned. To what extent are current practices and policies still in sync with the changed environment and with citizen’s expectations? Any responsive government would from time to time initiate a review or re-examination of some of the key state functions, particularly policing, which impacts on every citizen and on the country’s stability.

Unfortunately, governments tend to undertake a fundamental re-look at policing in reaction to crises, whether to a crisis within the police or in response to a major decline in public confidence in them. Substantive reviews should rather be normal periodic exercises, and 20 years after establishing the new South African Police Service (SAPS) presents an ideal opportunity. If such reviews are to lead to closer public-police cooperation and to an improvement of the service they render to the country’s citizens, then the review exercise should be open and substantive, involve broad public participation, and show that the government has confidence in its citizens.

This is not the case with the government’s Green Paper on policing which is currently circulating. A small group of ‘insiders’ drafted the Green Paper in their offices and now it is being rushed through a limited number of ‘public’ meetings across the country, which most members of the public are not even aware of. This has for all intents and purposes been a closed process. The government has adopted this ‘safe’ approach, presumably to ensure that it can fast track the process and maybe enact new legislation ahead of the 2014 general elections. It is therefore not surprising that there is no public debate on the Green Paper to speak of, nor are there opportunities for citizens to air their views on what their expectations of the police are.

This is a pity because over the past few years public confidence in the police has taken a dip, to put it mildly, and it needs to be re-gained. This will not be an easy task taking into account the series of damaging crises suffered by SAPS over the past few years, ranging from Jackie Selebi to Andreas Tatane, to Marikana, and to corruption scandals at the highest levels.

In reviewing existing policing policies, we can do much better than the current rushed and limited Green Paper process. We do not have to look far to see how other countries have gone about similar tasks. Kenya provides a good example, even though conditions there differ from those in South Africa. At the beginning of 2008, and following the disputed 2007 election result, Kenya almost descended into civil war. More than a thousand people died during post election violence, and thousands of properties were destroyed and people displaced. Ordinary citizens as well as opinion makers held the view that this could all have been minimised had the police responded in a professional non-partisan manner. Public confidence and levels of trust in the police were shockingly low. A July 2009 public survey suggested that only 24 per cent of Kenyan citizens had full trust or some trust in their police. In South Africa public confidence in the police has taken a beating but a similar survey in 2011 showed that ‘trust’ and ‘strong trust’ in the police was significantly higher and stood at 41 per cent but still well below 50 per cent.

Kenya’s political leaders agreed that the root causes of violence and the collapse of effective policing had to be addressed through, amongst other measures, fundamental institutional and policing reforms.

In May 2009 the Kenyan government appointed a National Task Force on Police Reforms. The 18-person Task Group was made up of representatives from key government departments, religious groups, the legal profession, well known civilians with public standing, the Attorney General, the chairman of the human rights commission, and two international experts, with a retired judge as the chairman. Armed with terms of reference, they embarked on a comprehensive road show through all eight Kenyan provinces. Numerous public meetings were held in rural areas, towns and cities (including two days of public hearings in the Nairobi city hall).

Any individual or group was welcome to make oral or written submissions to the Task Force on current and future policing practices and policies. Police stations in towns and in the hinterland were visited and members of the police given an opportunity to air their grievances and to make proposals as to how to improve policing and their own circumstances. In total, at least 103 individuals, 52 government ministries/departments, and 66 organisations ranging from the Anglican Church to trade unions, youth and women’s groups, business associations, non-governmental organisations and university departments, made submissions. The Task Force then went back to Nairobi, consulted experts, did some research, and six months after commencing with its task, handed a report with numerous and far-reaching recommendations to the President. The government accepted the recommendations and today policing in Kenya is on a much better footing even though a lot of work remains to be done.

Why does it seem that the confidence to pursue a similar open consultative process in South Africa is lacking? There is still time to change course. If the relationship between citizens and the police is key to the effectiveness and legitimacy of the police, then a process that involves citizens should be adopted. The stakes are high. The Green Paper contains pointers that suggest that government is aiming at a more centralised system, with more centralised policing powers in one place and under one person. This includes curtailing the powers of metropolitan police and private security. The Green Paper does not address what the National Development Plan (NDP) called the militarisation of the police and the negative impact that this has had on community police relations. The Green Paper is also weak on how impunity within the police is to be addressed and what measures it has in mind to reduce the alarming number of complaints from the public about criminal conduct by police.

In addition to the importance of improving safety and security of communities, we owe it to the police to have an open participative process so that they can have the confidence that the public is with them and has an understanding of the complexities of policing. The current limited Green Paper process will not achieve that. The government should halt the current Green Paper process and convert it into one of open consultation. This is how the underlying causes of ineffective policing and of eroding public confidence can be identified and longer-term policy solutions found to address them.

Peter Gastrow, Senior Research Consultant, ISS and Senior Advisor, The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime

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