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SAPS, Protests and Neighborhood Watches
I recently fielded a question from an irate member of the public on why SAPS members "stood back and watched as protesters burned and damaged public and private property" without intervention.
Here are a few important things to bear in mind in the light of SAPS policy on rotest actions.
1. Rest assured, your local SAPS are decidedly not "standing idly by" as these things unfold. It is in fact an operational mandate from the National Commissioners office that station-level police officers are not to draw shotguns and participate in controlling such situations. They are to stand back, monitor and gather information after alerting the SAPS unit designated to deal with such matters. (
Public Order Policing - also known as POPS).This is a result of what is commonly referred to as the Andries Tatane incident in which a violent protester was shot at point blank range by a station level junior police officer with rubber ammunition from a Shotgun. The short distance between the officer and Mr Tatane resulted in the rubber projectile penetrating the subjects body and caused his death - on camera as filmed by a newscrew on scene. 
The consequent investigation at a national level held that the junior officer was not properly trained in riot duties nor was he deemed to have acted responsibly in discharging a rubber round so close to a subject. As a result, stations were instructed not to issue rubber ammunition and shotguns to their officers for immediate response to civil unrest. A decision was taken that all future responses to civil unrest should indeed be undertaken by specialised units. 
2. Public Order Policing (POPS) members are intensively trained in crowd control, deployment of the appropriate tools (tear gas, rubber munitions etc.) and do these within a scalable use of force policy under the direction of platoon commander.The platoon commander will issue instructions based upon his decision to divide a protester group into smaller segments, to isolate ringleaders or achieve arrests. Typically within large city centers accross South Africa, POPS have a response time of around 45 minutes. 
It is the inability of station level SAPS members to act during the initial 45 minute period (sometimes less) that leads to excessive damage to public and private property and can even lead to serious injuries or loss of life - particularly in situations such as kangaroo courts which are volatile and generally over within 20-30 minutes. 
While the above is intensely fraustrating to onlookers to whom it appears "local police are just standing there watching while property is destroyed" (and I understand their agravation) this is equally if not more so for the actual police officers who have to stand back. The theory behind this is that any intervention that is not adequately supported by manpower and the correct toolset would be ineffective and could inflame an already volatile situation.
Rightly or wrongly this is the current position and decision making that is way above the level of our station.
Riots, Civil Disorder or whatever one wants to term it. The reality is it can happen on our doorstep as it did recently in Milnerton, Cape Town.
Watch for local alerts and stay informed. Avoid the areas affected as widely as possible and let SAPS do their best to bring the situation under control. Neighborhood watches can during times of civil unreset play their best role by keeping residents calm and well informed with accurate information. If the geography allows, pick a building that has high sight observation potential and position a patroller there to monitor the situation and deliver clear and concise updates on which areas are affected and which routes of travel to avoid. 
It seems that given the rise in incidents of public unrest in South Africa over the past few years it is not going to abate. Consequently a well prepared community would do well to support their NHW actions during such times and the NHW in turn would do well to act as a calming link between SAPS and the community for information sharing.