Cape Town – Violent public protests are diverting police resources from tackling crime – and the police can’t deal with unrest alone, MPs have been told. During hearings on the SAPS’s annual report, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the SA Police Union (Sapu) called on Parliament’s police oversight committee to find alternative mechanisms for dealing with public protests. According to the report, 1 194 public unrest incidents were recorded in 2011/12, compared with 971 the previous year. Gareth Newham of the ISS’s crime and justice programme, said police were being seen increasingly by residents as the “face of the state” – and were regularly using tear gas and rubber bullets. “Police become the proxy in terms of the communities taking out their frustrations on them – often leading to running battles with the cops… This leads to a complete breakdown between those communities and the police.” Sapu’s second vice-president, Thabo Matsose, said police had been “challenged to the extreme” through the violent nature of the recent public protests. “These have resulted in loss of lives, destruction of private and public property, intimidation and rendering certain areas ungovernable,” he said.
“As an organisation, we are concerned because public unrest takes place in the context of violence… and the police often find themselves in compromising positions. “Police themselves have not escaped these unrests and many have been killed. Our view… is that the police cannot succeed in policing public unrest alone.” Matsose called on the committee to find ways of reviving the role of Community Police Forums and Community Safety Forums: “These have been less effective, partly because not enough resources have been provided to these structures to succeed.” Committee chairwoman Annelize van Wyk called for a moment’s silence in tribute to the two police officers killed in the Western Cape in the past week.
“The time has arrived for us, as South Africans, to take a strong standpoint on this. An attack on a police officer is an attack on the country,” she said. “We cannot, as legislators, close our eyes to what has become an unacceptable situation. We must look at the laws that define sentences for the killing of police officers and, if we have to start a consultation with our counterparts in the justice committee, then we will do so. If it comes to the point where there is a minimum sentence for the killing of police officers, then that must be done.”