New policy on policing public order protests - Ministry

Dedicated National Public Order Policing (POPs) Unit to be established within SAPS

MINISTER MTHETHWA APPROVES POLICE' POLICY ON PUBLIC PROTESTS: Policy also places responsibilities on organizers to ensure that protests are carried out in an orderly and peaceful manner 

PARLIAMENT, CAPE TOWN - 30 August 2011.  The Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa today approved a policy to better manage public protests by police.  The policy, which the Ministry started working on some months ago, is aimed at providing a framework and guidelines for the police in policing public protests and to introduce stringent measures around the use of force linked to public gatherings and protests.

"The policy and guidelines must guide the SAPS in developing appropriate, effective operational strategies and systems in the policing of public protests which must restore and enhance confidence of the communities," stated the Minister.

More recently, the country has experienced a growing number of protest actions and unrests which, in some instances are accompanied by serious provocation, intimidation, public violence and even elements of criminality. Due to a lack of clear policy and guidelines, the SAPS reacted with operational policy based on lessons learnt from a number of notable incidences involving the police and the public.

Presenting the policy in Parliament today Secretary for Police, Ms Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane pointed out that in developing the policy, the SAPS needs to ensure that policing approach is consistent with Constitutionally-accorded rights for all citizens.  She added that the policy further needed to ensure such approaches do not impact negatively and enhance tensions between the police and community at the time of protest as this has potential to continue even beyond the protest.

"One challenge facing the police is that the policing of public protests, demonstrations and gathering draws the police away from their normal policing activities and forces the police to redirect resources from their normal day to day policing activities. This can lead to gaps in normal policing which are sharpened when the police personnel deployed to the policing of such events are drawn from local stations," stated Irish-Qhobosheane.

As part of the recommendations, the policy calls for an establishment of a dedicated National Public Order Policing (POPs) Unit within SAPS.  Such a unit was indeed established during 1996. During 2002 the POPs unit was subject to the SAPS restructuring and aligned to function at policing area level as the Area Crime Combating Units. During the subsequent restructuring process in 2006, the policing areas were disbanded and policing resources ‘released' to supplement much needed capacity at station level.

The policy directs the National Commissioner of Police to ensure that sufficient appropriate capacity is created (whether by transferring back previous experienced and skilled members or building capacity through effective and focused training to other members deemed fit) and must ensure that the unit is appropriately resourced. 

The research conducted during the policy formulation, indicated that the current level of training to SAPS members in crowd management and control (public order policing) lacks content. Basic and refresher training for police and others involved in law enforcement should include courses not only on human and constitutional rights, but also scientific techniques and other best practices for the professional discharge of their functions within the public protest environment.

Minister Mthethwa further stated that the success of effective response by the SAPS to any public protest situation is dependent on a strong line of command and control. Within the context of policing public protests, command and control simply means that certain people must know that they have different roles to play.

"SAPS Commanders must have negotiation skills and be able to use these skills during gatherings. In the case of a planned gathering, the commanders must be able to negotiate with the organizers of the gathering, or the person nominated for this purpose, as and when required or necessary. In the event of an unplanned gathering, commanding officers must be able to identify key leaders from the group with whom they can negotiate."

Spontaneous public protests, on the other hand do not provide the luxury of planning and sometimes call for immediate reaction. Such situations call for sound judgement and correct assessment of the situation. In order to ensure the right responses, it is required that each province must facilitate the development of contingency plans up to police station level or at least cluster level to provide minimum guidance to respond should any of the public protest types manifests.

The Minister added that an observation from previous experiences is that the reaction of the police, in both categories seems to lack proper structure and formation. There is no coordination while there seems to be no purpose on the side of the SAPS but solely to guard the protest.

"Firstly, the SAPS must introduce measures to ensure cordoning off of certain areas and restrict the protest to routes and areas less significant and minimum opportunity for damage to property or threats to the person. Secondly, the SAPS must employ the best possible formation to prevent provocation; target leaders of the pack for later interrogation and ensure that each protest is covered by video recording. This might come in handy during case investigation or for identifying possible perpetrators in criminal cases," he added.

In order to give effect to the implementation of this policy, it is incumbent on the SAPS management to kick-start procurement processes in ensuring all the required and necessary equipment is procured.  These should be evenly-distributed, allocated and properly maintained. The minimum equipment which will be required include body armour and helmets, shields, batons, water cannons (some already procured for crowd control during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, armoured vehicles (some of the current fleet needs replacement) as well as specified calibre firearms and ammunition.

A key area of procurement is the availability of video equipment during public protests and demonstrations. Working video equipment must be deployed to and used at all public gatherings and protests. The use of such video equipment will not only assist the police in securing prosecutions where criminal acts occur but will also allow the police to make use of material gathered during the videoing of such events for training and debriefings. 

A threat analysis must be conducted by the intelligence fraternity throughout the whole country to identify hotspots which must be considered and provide guidance for the deployment and/or allocation of equipment, stated the policy.

The use of intelligence as part of policing of public protests and gathering is essential. The relationship between the POP units and crime intelligence can not only assist in the planning of deployments at protests but also assist the POP unit to identify possible threats and targets proactively.

Whilst the police have a responsibility to police public protest, gatherings and events, the Gatherings Act confers considerable responsibilities on conveners or organizers of events to ensure that such events are carried out in an orderly and peaceful manner.  Any contravention of this must result in the organisers facing criminal charges.

Statement issued by Zweli Mnisi, Spokesperson to the Minister and Deputy Minister of Police, August 30 2011

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