Merging municipal police forces into the national force could spell disaster, writes LINDA ENSOR.

Police commissioner Jackie Selebi summoned city managers to a meeting this week to discuss an initiative to merge metropolitan police forces with the South African Police Service (SAPS), apparently given renewed impetus in April by a bid to merge Durban’s force with the SAPS.

Documents presented at the African National Congress’s (ANC) policy conference this month also raised the question of integrating metropolitan police forces into a uniform system of command and control.

Tshwane, Johannesburg, Eku-rhuleni, Cape Town and Durban are the cities with the strongest local police forces, and all of these fall under the control of their local metropolitan councils.

A draft bill providing for the integration — first mooted by the government in 2005 — was stalled in the face of public opposition.

Critics of the plan, such as the Democratic Alliance (DA), argue that the government’s drive to integrate the local police units into the SAPS stemmed from the ANC’s desire to take charge of every sphere of national life.

Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula’s spokesman Hangwani Mulaudzi stressed that no final decision had been made on integration. The matter was still under discussion.

He said the constitution dictated that there be a single police service. To achieve this, SAPS management was engaged in ongoing discussions with the South African Local Government Association.

Mulaudzi said integration was favoured to overcome fragmentation in the deployment and distribution of resources.

Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Johan Burger believed integration of the local police forces into the SAPS would be a “huge mistake”.

He noted the constitution also made provision for municipal police services.

Burger conceded that ambiguities in the law had led to much friction between national and metropolitan police forces. This was because their crime prevention responsibilities were not clearly defined. But this could be dealt with in other ways, he said.

DA leader and Cape Town mayor Helen Zille is strongly opposed to the proposed move. In her weekly online newsletter, SA Today, Zille said she was informed of the plan in a ministerial letter by Nqakula last month.

he minister said integration would “enhance policing standards and improve service delivery without deviating from administrative control over metropolitan police services by the metropolitan councils”.

Zille said “the effective disarmament of the metro police could not come at a worse time” in the light of the high crime rate. According to her, Selebi was presiding over a police force that was steadily losing its ability to deliver on its mandate, and his control should not be extended.

“Crime prevention forces in touch with local communities are urgently needed. Metro police forces offer one of the few viable ways in which municipalities can lead the fight against lawlessness. They successfully bring policing closer to the people, through visibility and an intimate knowledge of local conditions.

“The fact is — and international practice confirms our experience — policing works best when closest to the people.”

Zille said she had no doubt that the uniform “policing standards” envisaged would be “uniformly low” and gravitate to the lowest common denominator.

“At least with the municipal police, there is a chance of some forces providing adequate service, while others inevitably will not. Under centralised control, all, predictably, will be equally bad.”

A further argument put forward by Zille was that the competencies of municipal forces under the Police Act differed from those of the SAPS, and included enforcing bylaws, monitoring littering, vagrancy, health code violations and public decency.

“If local units are absorbed, it is likely such crucial matters will be ignored and the quality of community life further undermined.”

Zille cited a number of examples of the negative consequences of abolishing specialised units.

She said the abolition of commandos had left farming communities exposed, while the absorption of child protection units into the SAPS had scattered specialist input.

Burger agreed that specialist units were needed. He said the integration of the railway police into the SAPS had resulted in an escalation of crime, and a dedicated railway police unit eventually had to be created in the force.

Nationally, there were only about 10000 municipal police officers, who would be swallowed up in the 160000-strong SAPS.

“It is not a good idea to put all your eggs into one basket,” he said. “There needs to be a better arrangement where local forces focus on those matters which are of no concern to the national police force. This would allow the SAPS to focus on serious crime.”

Burger said there was scope for greater co-ordination between the forces to overcome conflict. Legislative provision for such co-ordinating structures existed, but they had not worked effectively and should be strengthened.

The responsibilities of the local police forces were limited to three basic functions: traffic control, by-law enforcement, and the prevention of crime.

Burger said the main cause of friction was that “crime prevention” was not defined and, as a result, local forces often infringed upon what the SAPS regarded as its territory.

AUTHOR: Linda Ensor
DATED: 28th July 2007