Government wants to change how police, security and neighbourhood watches work – but there are problems

 ·3 Nov 2020

The Western Cape’s head of Community Safety Albert Fritz has raised concerns with provisions of the South African Police Service (SAPS) Amendment Bill – specifically around neighbourhood watches and changes to the police service.

Fritz said that the bill wants to integrate law enforcement officers into a municipal police service, which could have a major impact on smaller towns across the country.

“This is very concerning because it would have major cost implications in terms of the Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (LEAP) and would mean that smaller municipalities, who have law enforcement capabilities but cannot afford municipal police services, would no longer be able to have their own law enforcement capabilities,” he said.

He said that the provision further ‘threatens to undermine’ the efforts of the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town through the Western Cape Safety Plan, which has deployed an additional 500 law enforcement officers to the most crime afflicted communities.

“A single police service would mean further centralisation of policing in the province and take service delivery away from those who need it most, where and when they need it,” he said.

Neighbourhood watches 

The bill will make it a requirement for Neighbourhood Watches (NHW) to register with Community Police Forums (CPFs).

Fritz said that this requirement is problematic as the key objectives of these two groups are fundamentally different. He said that the main objective of CPFs is oversight over the police as set out in section 18 of the bill, and NHWs are not police officials nor do they have any policing function.

Their role is to act as the eyes and ears of the community through patrols, he said.

Fritz said that the proposed legislation could also conflict with existing provincial legislation which already provides for the accreditation of NHWs with the Department of Community Safety.

“A conflict of interest may arise from the NHW accrediting themselves with the Department and registering with the CPF. It is therefore suggested that clear criteria be set for registration,” he said.

“Furthermore, there is no link to farm watches and how they might be linked to a functional SAPS Reservist system. In such case, SAPS reservists could combine with farm watches to ensure that farm watches have peace officers which guide them in their response.”

Public order policing 

The bill provides for the establishment of a national Public Order Policing (POP) capacity which may be deployed at the request of and in support of the provincial commissioner.

Fritz said that the Western Cape has the second-lowest number of units across the country, and the fifth-lowest number of POP officers. In addition, the number of POP officers in the province is only 9.8% of the total number across the country, he said.

“I am concerned that the decision to deploy POP will be centralised to the office of the national commissioner, and that the provincial commissioner will merely be able to indicate where there is a need for deployment, giving the province less say over when and how to deploy resources.

“There is further a clear need to increase the resources allocated to the Western Cape which may not be addressed by centralising the deployment of POP through a national POP capacity. This is demonstrated as the decision to deploy this capacity would lie with the national commissioner.”

Railway safety 

Fritz said that the bill fails to acknowledge that it is the primary responsibility of the SAPS to safeguard commuters on the railway system and at train stations.

This legal mandate is derived from legislation on the integration of the Railway Police into the SAPS in 1986.

“It is suggested that the following sub-section be added: (iv) the delivery of a visible policing function to safeguard rail commuters on rolling stock and at train stations,” said Fritz.

Government’s aim

In an explanation of the draft bill in September, Police minister Bheki Cele said the amendments are long overdue.

“While all officers are guided by Section 205 of the Constitution of the country, there was a need to bring this bill in line with the Constitution to ensure optimal policing within the current environment,” he said.

The police minister outlined some of the most important changes as follows:

  • The integrity of the SAPS – The amendments seek to address matters of vetting and integrity testing of those employed within the SAPS through lifestyle audits and conflict of interest. Those joining the service will also need to be subjected to processes to ensure the integrity of the organisation is maintained. Police recruits will be expected to also submit a buccal sample for DNA testing;
  • More powers for the minister – The act will empower the Minister of Police to make regulations for the roles, functions, duties and obligations, requirements for appointment and disciplinary matters of deputy national and divisional commissioners;
  • Regulation of community policing– The legislation will seek to enhance community policing and oversight of the Community Policing Forums over the police. The coordination between the police service and municipal police services needs to be improved in terms of the concept of single police service. It will enhance the framework for the establishment, powers, functions and control of municipal police services;
  • New rules around firearms – The amended bill will also give effect to the Farlam Commission recommendations. This includes the assurance that no automatic rifles may be used in crowd control, and that lethal force may not be used for protection of property only. The bill states that only whenever life and property is endangered simultaneously will the use of lethal force be warranted.

Cele said that the bill provides a way to improve relationships between the police service and the community by ensuring that police members deal with the public with dignity and respect the rights of the public, especially the rights of women, children and persons with disabilities.

“These amendments make room for accountability and discipline within the police service and I believe they will go a long way in ensuring that the SAPS better serves the people of this country whilst at the same time, boost the trust between communities and the men and women in blue,” he said.

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