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Police brutality is rife, despite management claims, writes Ido Lekota

By unknown | Feb 01, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

It was one of those hot summer nights when we slept only in our pyjama shorts with the blankets thrown aside.

It was one of those hot summer nights when we slept only in our pyjama shorts with the blankets thrown aside.

My two brothers and I were sleeping on the floor. My mom and dad were sleeping in the bed next to us.

Suddenly there was a loud bang on the front door accompanied by a booming voice shouting: "Maak oop kaffirs dis die polisie." - "Open up kaffirs it is the police."

My father jumped out of the bed, pulled on his nightgown and rushed to open the door.

Suddenly the room was flooded with barrel-chested Afrikaans-speaking behemoths who shone torches into our eyes.

"Waar is die geweer?" - "Where is the rifle?" - bellowed one of the six heavily armed policemen.

As he spoke he shoved my father against the wall. We were unceremoniously dragged out of bed and shoved against the wall.

"Waar is die geweer jong?" the behemoth who seemed to be the leader of the pack asked as he delivered a few slaps across my father's face.

We stood there whimpering - while my mother cowered in her bed too shocked to say anything.

Meanwhile the rest of the pack started ransacking our house, throwing things out the wardrobes.

My father then told the leader of the squad that the only geweer he had was a pellet gun that he kept under the wardrobe. A policeman fished it out and handed it to their leader.

"Wat maak jy met die ding jong. Waar het jy dit gekry?" - "What do you do with this thing and where did you get it from?"

"We hunt birds with it. A farmer friend gave it to me," said my dad.

The police confiscated the gun and left our house after warning us that "kaffirs" were not supposed to walk around brandishing guns.

It turned out later that a white farmer who had been to the clinic my mother ran had seen me with the pellet gun. He then told the police about us keeping a "geweer" in our house.

The incident happened when I was 10 years old.

These memories flashed back two weeks ago when I saw media reports of how police raided a Pretoria News photographer.

The photographer had taken pictures of police who had viciously assaulted a prostitute who was apparently resisting arrest.

The difference between the two raids is that the former happened during apartheid. The police then used brute force with impunity when dealing with blacks.

The latter incident happened in the new South Africa - where police are expected to be more humane. Today's police are also expected to execute their duties in a manner that respects people's rights and dignity.

The alleged assault of the prostitute and the apparent attempt by the police to destroy evidence of the incident raises questions about the abuse of power by the police. By its nature policing involves the use of force - because police do need to use force in some instances when carrying out their responsibilities. For example in an incident where a suspect is resisting arrest or in life-threatening situations such as riots.

The problem arises when excessive force is used in such incidents - leading to police brutality. The alleged assault on the prostitute by police is an example of such brutality.

Such a situation, unfortunately, undermines the ethos of trust that should exist between the public and the police.

This is normally compounded if there is a public perception that police can abuse their authority with impunity.

Of importance, therefore, is the manner in which police management deals with incidents of police brutality.

In his recent paper, titled Respecting the Badge, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation researcher David Bruce argues that "there is paralysis by police management in managing the use of force by their members".

Bruce argues that there is a tendency within police management to create an impression that acts of police brutality are isolated.

The reality, he says, is that police brutality is rife. Unfortunately only a few of these incidents are publicly captured.

The prostitute incident and one that happened in 2000 when the East Rand Dog Unit set dogs on illegal immigrants are a few that have been recorded.

Bruce also suggests that the managers condone brutality because they believe that without the use of force police cannot exercise their authority.

Whenever an incident of police brutality is reported, management normally responds by announcing that there will be an investigation.

But the manner in which these investigations are held does not inspire public confidence. The prostitute incident is a case in point.

Remarks by National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who suggested that the case against the police was "a thumbsuck", do not help either.

He did not even bother to apologise when it became obvious that he made his remarks based on wrong information.

According to Bruce, investigating incidents of police brutality is a step in the right direction.

But the long term solution lies in providing training and support systems for policemen who now have to operate under different and difficult circumstances. Policemen, Bruce argues, now have to exercise authority - but balance that with respect for human rights.

For them to effectively execute their duties they need skills, effective support systems and a recognition by management that excessive use of force is not the most effective way of good policing.


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