When Brutality Hides Behind the Badge

April 28, 2011  |  

by Brendah Nyakudya

In what is easily the most shocking incident this year, police brutally assaulted and fatally shot an unarmed man at a service delivery protest in the small South African town of Ficksburg.  Andries Tatane was a community leader, a man who believed in fighting for one’s rights.  Sadly, that calling cost him his life.  In an altercation with police who were ironically dispatched to keep the peace at the protest, an unarmed Andries was beaten by more than 4 officers and shot at close range.  This incident not only shocked the nation, but started a long-overdue debate about the state (mentally and otherwise) of our police force.  The violence with which they reacted to the situation was a frightening peek into the psyche of those who are meant to serve and protect.

While the shock is understandable, as a nation, South Africa wasn’t  all that surprised at this behavior.  For the longest time police brutality has been an issue.  Civilians have reported numerous instances of bad behavior from our boys (and girls) in blue and grey.  Complaints range from club-goers being roughed up during night raids, to young women being picked up and allegedly raped by policemen.  It doesn’t stop there.  Many citizens can attest to being pulled over at a roadblock only to have their wallets stolen.

As we speak the national head of crime intelligence, Lieutenant-General Richard Mdluli, has been released on bail after murder charges were brought against him. According to a report entitled The Broken Blue Line conducted by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), police crime is not a set of isolated events, but widespread issue.  In just one week the institute compiled a list of 100 crimes where police involvement was either alleged or confirmed.

Of the 100 incidents, all the offenses were related to serious, and often brutal, pre-mediated crimes.  Included were “ATM bombings, armed robberies, house robberies, rapes, murders, and serious assaults”.  Service pistols keep popping up as murder weapons.  Of the cops who have been accused, reports show most of them are still on the job, not having been fired, suspended or even investigated.  Most victims and witnesses are scared to come forward and, to the frustration of those who do lay charges, many a docket has gone “missing” along the path to justice.  This is largely due to the fact that cases are being handled by colleagues of the accused.  According to the report, during 2008 and 2009, 378 police assaults were reported to the Independent Complaints Directorate.  Of that total only six officers were prosecuted for the crime — an underwhelming 1.58%.

As we consider these figures it is important to take into account the conditions that law enforcement officers (both corrupt and non-corrupt) work under.  A police officer working the streets of South Africa is likely to see more violence in a year than their counterparts in other countries will see in their entire career.  This exposure to violence and the stress it induces is seen as a major factor in the aggression exhibited by police, as well as the suicide prevalent in the force.

With all this rot is it any wonder that South Africans look upon incidents like the murder of Tatane with shock but not surprise?  Can it be considered an exaggeration when they report feeling vulnerable and scared most of the time?  For while it remains a lovely country with amazing potential, some of its flaws are hard to ignore.

A police force riddled with corruption and crime is a huge failing of public safety and requires urgent attention. Steps leaders could take to address this include ensuring that their recruitment process focuses on identifying people of good character. Measures must be taken to keep an eye on personnel in order to combat and assist them in dealing with emotional stress.  Most importantly an independent body has to be set up to initiate transparent investigations of allegations brought against the police by the public.

Until these steps are taken this unfortunately will continue to mar the valiant efforts of those police officers who are not criminals and take seriously the charge to serve and protect.  Until this wrong is made right we will continue to look at the police force with fear and suspicion, and that is no way to live.

Brendah Nyakudya is a  Zimbabwean-born media personality, social commentator and marketer living in South Africa.  Writing and social issues are her main interests with a purpose to better the continent.  She is currently working as a Brand Manager for a TV Music channel in Johannesburg.

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