Community policing was launched in South Africa over a decade ago, yet police response to the policy remains largely symbolic. Why has it failed to transform the police service and reduce crime? This annex to a University of Wales publication analyses the shortcomings of community policing in South Africa, and suggests how the initiative should be incorporated into mainstream policing policy.
The political violence accompanying the end of South Africa’s apartheid system has created a difficult environment for community policing. The 1991 National Peace Accord created the first framework for police accountability. Community policing was then formalised in the 1993 Interim Constitution, with the aim of democratising and legitimising the police. In 1997, there was a shift towards improving service delivery and tackling crime. Yet the impact of community policing has been limited by the fragmented nature of South Africa’s communities and a lack of capacity. Initiatives have succeeded in building trust between citizens and the police. But if community policing is to help reduce crime, it must be integrated throughout the police service.
Successful community policing requires coherent communities that are motivated to reduce crime, as well as a police force that can implement innovative methods. In South Africa’s divided society, and particularly in the poor townships, both of these elements are lacking. Other main failings are that:
- The tendency to view community policing as the responsibility of provincial and local police services has led to neglect at higher levels.
- Implementation has focused too much on establishing and maintaining Community Police Forums (CPFs). Little effort has been made to develop a comprehensive approach, or to train police and CPF representatives.
- The experience of CPFs has differed around the country. The biggest problems occur where scarce resources hamper any kind of policing.
- Beyond this, the major challenge is building trust between communities in which some people still regard the police as oppressors and a police force that has not undertaken radical reform.
- Community policing has proved most successful in rich (often white) areas, due to financial donations and the desire of citizens to prevent crime. Yet even here, its impact on crime reduction is difficult to assess.
- Patchy community policing may displace crime to poorer areas, reinforcing the social divisions the policy was meant to overcome.
CPFs have helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the police. Yet current policy seems unlikely to achieve its wider goals of improving service delivery and reducing crime. More positively, the experience of the past five years suggests actions that could be taken to make a success of community policing:
- Installing clear and willing leadership at the highest levels.
- Developing a coherent, integrated and actionable implementation strategy, based on critical review of current policies and conditions on the ground.
- Recruiting a higher standard of police personnel and improving training throughout the force, with a focus on accountable service delivery.
- Reviewing the organisational structure of the police so that it facilitates the delivery of a policing service responsive to local needs.
- Strengthening the capacity of CPFs through improved funding and co-operation between police and communities.