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SAPS stuck in vicious cycle of crackdown policing

19 Jun 2018 - 10:45
Minister of Police, Bheki Cele. Photo: Lisa Hnatowicz, Beeld
Minister of Police, Bheki Cele. Photo: Lisa Hnatowicz, Beeld

By Guy Lamb

Earlier this week Bheki Cele, the Minister of Police, informed the media that the South African Police Service (SAPS) would now be pursuing an "extraordinary operational approach".

The minister elaborated that this would entail "squeezing the space for criminals" and "stamping the authority of the State" in order to "stabilise" the recent escalation in incidents of violent crime. 

High density crackdown policing will be the cornerstone of this approach in which the police will deploy en masse into high crime areas. Roadblocks will be erected. Residents, vehicles and premises will be searched. Illegal firearms and ammunition, drugs, alcohol and stolen goods will be seized. Those in possession of such goods will be arrested and hauled off to police cells, along those individuals "wanted" by the SAPS for serious crimes, but drug addicts, sex workers and undocumented immigrants will be likely targets too. 

There is nothing extraordinary or innovative about this recent iteration of militarised policing in South Africa. The SAPS have been pursuing large-scale saturation policing on an intermittent basis over the past two decades. Such a policing approach is firmly grounded in the assumption that acts of criminality within high crime areas can be deterred by strong-arm policing methods. This is backed-up by theory derived from US research, particularly the work of the eminent criminologist, Lawrence Sherman. 

These studies have shown that crackdown operations can contribute to reductions in crime in hotspots by creating heightened uncertainty among offenders and potential offenders over the level of risk of apprehension. It follows that these individuals may then desist from committing crimes in those areas. Furthermore, the arrest of offenders will also likely bring about a reduction in crime rates in the short term.

The pursuance of high-density operations has also been shaped by the intricacies of the socio-political terrain of high crime spaces in South Africa, where reliable crime intelligence has been difficult to acquire, and residents have not always been predisposed to being policed by the state. 

In this regard, the presence and efforts of small groups of uniformed police have typically not been able to induce groups of residents that are engaging in acts of law-breaking to cease participating in such activities. Hence the SAPS, in order to temporarily reclaim its authority in relation to law enforcement and order maintenance in such places, has often resorted to using saturation policing and/or the use of force.

Crackdown policing not a sustainable solution

Crackdown strategies are nonetheless neither a long-term nor sustainable crime prevention measure. According to Sherman's theory on police crackdowns (1990), the main objective of such an approach is to "regain a threshold level of public order and safety" after which "the effectiveness of family, community, schools and the labour force could be substantially increased". 

This has also been repeatedly emphasised by the SAPS since the 1990s, stating that high-density operations are a stopgap to "stabilise" high crime communities in order to allow other government departments and civil society organisations to intercede in addressing the key determinants of criminality and violence.

Given the SAPS' renewed appetite for crackdown policing it is worthwhile reflecting on one of the most prominent past versions of this militarised approach and its impact on crime, namely Operation Crackdown, which was launched in 2000. 

It was planned to be a three-year national operation that sought to stabilise what was perceived to be rampant criminality in South Africa, as well as improve public confidence in the police. At the time, Jackie Selebi, the national SAPS commissioner, hailed Operation Crackdown as "a new and unprecedented method of policing". This operation targeted close to 200 high crime police precincts. 

For the first 12 months (1 April 2000 to 31 March 2001) of the operation some 485 551 arrests were made, of which 176 235 were related to serious crimes. The high number of arrests continued throughout the remainder of 2001 and into the first quarter of 2002, with 524 419 arrests being made by the SAPS between January 2001 and May 2002, of which 216 322 were related to serious crimes. 

An analysis of SAPS crime data in targeted high crime police precincts indicates that in the majority of areas many categories of serious crime decreased, particularly murder, in the immediate aftermath of Crackdown. However, following the conclusion of Operation Crackdown violent crime levels subsequently increased in many of the focal areas in the preceding year. Consequently, the SAPS launched further high-density operations in order to wrestle down levels of violent crime. 

Other government departments not coming to the party

A major contributing factor is that other government departments have not been able to deliver meaningful and sustainable development interventions at the necessary scale in high crime areas. 

Multisectoral and integrated crime prevention policies and plans have been developed to address socio-economic dynamics, particularly those risk factors in homes and communities that greatly facilitate vulnerabilities to violent crime and the perpetration thereof. But in reality, such interventions have been ad hoc, misdirected and under-resourced in most high crime areas and elsewhere. In effect the macro environment that predisposes South Africans to criminal offending, such as high levels of poverty, unemployment and income inequality, has remained largely unchanged since 1994.

The recent crime-fighting strategy announcement by the police minister also included a commitment to significantly improve other aspects of the policing service, especially the investigation of crime and the processing of dockets. However, there has been no indication from other government departments about how they will actively and practically contribute to reducing crime levels. 

If the status quo remains, the reality is that the SAPS will find themselves locked into a vicious cycle of continually bombarding crime hotspots with high-density operations in order to constrain and suppress criminal offending. Furthermore, such a state of affairs does not bode well for the demilitarisation of the police as outlined in the National Development Plan and the SAPS Strategic Plan.

- Dr Guy Lamb is director of the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

This article originally appeared on News24 on 11/06/2018