What happened at Alexandra police station where five people eventually died is an extreme case of when the system fails.
There are too many cops who’ve stuck their service pistols in their mouths because they cannot admit they need help for this not to be a ticking time bomb.
“Policing is a dangerous and demanding work.”
It’s a succinct statement from national police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale who follows it up with, “Police officials are exposed to numerous internal and external stressors including traumatic incidents.”
Let’s dismantle those last words.
Because it’s not only the literal blood and guts a police member has to deal with, it’s the hate humans have for one another and the incredible violence involved in crime.
And it can show up in odd ways, often in ways the civilian population regard as abhorrent.
The seemingly disproportionate beating a suspect receives when resisting arrest or the back thumping and laughter after a shootout where the suspects lie dead on the road, the indifference displayed towards a crime survivor.
One is an expression of frustration, the other a celebration of making it out alive, the last a result of sheer system overload.
For the most part we live with each other in relative harmony, but it’s the aftermath of an all consuming rage which takes over when somebody gets in your face that police have to deal with. Road rage. Domestic violence. Taxi drivers. When the cashier at the drive-thru mixes your order up.
It’s the strong arm of the law “haasmanne” (translation – civilians) want when houses are broken into, cars are stolen, family members are killed and people are raped.
We need the police to make sense of our world in turmoil and this too is a trauma no amount of training can prepare a police member for.
And it dehumanises, it has to, because without a shield or a defence how do they protect, how do they serve?
“The majority of police officials however are coping with their task demands with the support of family, colleagues and support systems within the South African Police Service,” says Makgale.
He notes a national summit on suicide called by National Commissioner General Riah Phiyega “ was a turning point in SAPS as it resulted in the intensification of efforts to deal with emotional wellbeing of our employees.”
Makgale points to the establishment of an Employee Health and Wellness (EHW) section to deal specifically with their mental, physical and spiritual needs.
“The Choose Life programme has recently been implemented within the organisation where subjects such as relationships, stress management, suicide/homicide, bullying in the workplace, HIV and suicide and an introduction to emotion competence are dealt with,” explains Makgale.
“Furthermore emotion competence as a full programme has been implemented where a specific focus is done on emotion regulation. Several trauma interventions are done within the South African Police Service as well as substance abuse, financial management and spiritual programmes are offered. These programmes are presented to police officials from entry level students to top management as well as across divisions and units.”
Tellingly, there is even a domestic violence desk with the aim to “pro-actively, reactively and directly address domestic violence within the organisation.”
Makgale says more than 60 000 employees made use of the polices psychological and social work services, the majority of whom were members on the ground. “Whilst this is good, we believe that we still need to do more so that all our employees who are exposed to trauma receive the necessary counseling and support,” Makgale says.
It’s the fact that members believe promotions will be affected, that they will be seen as soft, weak, unable to “deal” which may cause those most in need to turn away from help.
There has to be a way to make cops want to be proud of being strong enough to admit weakness.
“Some of them have long lived with the myth that if they were to seek the services of EHW, they are automatically excluding themselves from getting promoted within the SAPS. Just like in society, there is a myth that ‘tigers don’t cry’ in line with the macho culture existing within the organisation,” Makgale says.
“It is an unfortunate and ugly phenomenon that has overshadowed SAPS’s countless efforts of investing in the wellbeing of our personnel.” And it’s one which has been around ever since a daddy told his son, “Cowboys don’t cry.”
“The services offered by EHW are free of charge and what is more interesting and attractive about it is that, it goes beyond the workplace by also assisting affected family members,” says Makgale.
It is also a fact that some of the SAPS personnel refuse outrightly assistance when managers and immediate supervisors detect variance from a member’s behaviour, which sometimes points to a problem either at home or in the workplace,” he says and adds, “Managers and immediate supervisors are duty bound and directed by regulations within SAPS to ensure that an employee gets immediate support from professional counsellors, but such efforts come to nothing when the very victim rejects such intervention.”
There is a golden opportunity here for the the status quo to be changed and it is a simple solution: No “kopdokter” (translation – head doctor), no promotion, no transfers, no bonus, no yearly pay increase.
No clean bill of mental health, no nothing.
The howling from the rank and file will be massive. Unions will probably scream from the rafters about it being an infringement of rights.
It shouldn’t be too hard to implement, it’s already done at intake level.
The only difference is the members station commander, shift commander, shift buddies, all need to be put in the spotlight and if the assessors alarm bells ring for even a second, then it has to be rigorously followed up.
Then of course, there are the “internal stressors” Makgale referred too.
And these are the power struggles within the police itself.
It’s the senior officers wrapped up in criminal investigations, the fear of investigating politically connected and powerful individuals, the incomprehension of the rank and file at their fellow cops who commit serious crime day in and day out who are seemingly never prosecuted.
It’s Marikana, it’s Richard Mdluli, Anwar Dramat, Shadrack Sibiya, Marthinus Botha, Johan Booysen, Jackie Selebi, Bheki Cele, and Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, to name a few.
It’s the ongoing never-ending meddling of politicians in the day-to-day running of the police which has to come to an immediate stop.
Somehow, politics have to be legislated out of the police so that it too, like the Public Protector, can do its job without fear or favour.
Then perhaps we might have less Alexandra police stations, and more of what Constable Able signs on for, which is to fight crime.