I’ve been a reservist for just over five years, before that I worked as a chaplain and met lots of great police officers, some of whom became friends. I experienced the joy of a successful arrest, the frustration of an unsuccessful chase, the irritation of “hurry up and wait” and the insult of an unforgiving, ungrateful public. I’ve felt deep grief at the death of a “Friend in Uniform” , given up on bad planning, boring ops, egotistical officers,’slapgat officers’, and endured the long night shift where nothing happens. I’ve laughed with my crew, laughed at my crew and laughed at other crews. I’ve been shocked, horrified, a little scared, my heart has raced, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve made some real good calls.I’ve recognized how wearing the uniform has changed me, affected me and matured me: but I’ve worn the uniform with pride. I’ve also recognized how lucky I’ve been. Lucky to be a part of that camaraderie” that only those who’ve been a part of can know.Most importantly, I’m lucky I’m still alive.
Others are not so lucky. Some have died on duty in a hail of bullets ( excuse the cliché) Others have died at their own hands. Some have taken the lives of others and then their own life. Many officers, although living, just go through the motions of working. For them, the flame that once burned so powerfully, is now a flicker. Officers have turned to corruption, to crime, to drink to drugs and to whatever addiction they can get their hands on.But most, if not all started out wanting to be a police officer: TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE!
So, what went wrong? Who can we blame?
Do we blame the history and legacy of apartheid? Do we blame society, the government or the police management, or do we blame ourselves?
The challenges faced by police officers are universal. Every country faces corruption in their police force, there are deaths, suicides and maladaptive ways of coping with the stress of being an officer.
However, in South Africa these numbers are much higher! The crime is more violent and more concentrated, corruption is greater, our officers are bigger targets for cowardly criminals and the risk our officers face both physically, emotionally and psychologically is much greater.
Our officers are underpaid, under-resourced, unappreciated and at times badly managed. Although there are “systems” in place to manage stress and the effects of trauma, the stigma attached to counselling and psyche services is great, and some do question the abilities, competency and confidentiality of such counselling.
Yes, standing orders exist to ensure that police officers receive counselling after an incident.But I remember the saying “ You can take a horse to the water, but you cant force him to drink”
So lets be brutally honest here, there is a serious problem with the stress levels of our police officers in SA.
The South African Police Force is complex. The SAP faces a mammoth task of tackling crime, our communities expect and demand it, government and opposition parties demand it and of course, the SAP management demands it of their officers. Perhaps in our expectations, therein lies the problem, and the solution may not be what we expect.
I have always believed that one needs to examine the entire problem to find a solution, and for such a complex problem it is impossible that there should be a single solution.
If we want to tackle crime effectively, we need to ensure that our officers are well motivated, well paid, well resourced and well trained. Logical,yes. But motivation and good management and better resources does not necessarily mean the Hoorah, go get em’ boys, better faster cars and a higher salary type of solution, although that would be nice for many I’m sure.
Remember the comment about complexity and no single solution?
A lasting solution or improvement would mean a long term strategy to examine the various issues that need adjustment.I could list numerous examples, such as an improvement to the members medical aid for psychological services, so that officers can afford to see a counsellor of their own choice, housing and education allowances, allowances for danger pay, better career advancement opportunities regardless of gender or race, on-going management training for ranking officers ( perhaps lessons in people skills too- police are people you know!) and of course better marketing or training about the need for self care, stress management and the need to talk about the effects of traumatic stress.
A strategy needs to be drafted to more effectively manage the psycho-social needs of our officers now and it needs to come from the highest level and it needs to happen now. I am quite certain that there are a number of adjustments that need to be made. Part of the adjustment also needs to be made in the expectations of our society and communities and a realisation that when we judge or criticize our police officers, we are in essence judging our own. The men and women that make up our police force are a reflection of South African society,and for change to happen in the SAP, change needs to take place in South Africa and in us as South Africans.