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South Africa Seeks Police Reform

Pretoria hopes to win black support by promoting community-police dialogue

SOUTH AFRICA'S government has accepted the principle of joint control of the police in a bid to win black support for law enforcement during the country's transition to democracy. The new approach is based on establishing a partnership between the public and the police, to help negotiate a new police order which would give civilians a say in management and control of the 108,000-strong force.

This approach was discussed at a closed-door conference last week on ``policing in the new South Africa'' which brought together South African and local law-enforcement officials, as well as members of the government and major black representative groups - the African National Congress and its rivals, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress.

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Conference delegates said a decision was reached to create working groups to advise Pretoria on police reforms and bring international expertise into retraining the force. The initiative will focus on creating community-police forums to allow blacks a say in determining a new style of policing. The forums will have input on issues such as a code of conduct, crowd-control methods, police training and selection programs, and police accountability.

The approach will also involve creating a separate, highly trained riot-control unit and appointing an ombudsman to investigate allegations of police bias.

The emphasis on community-police relations is in line with New York City's policy of ``community policing'' initiated by New York Police Commissioner Lee Brown, who was a keynote speaker at the conference. Commissioner Brown devoted his speech to lessons that South Africa could draw from the experience of the American South. He emphasized the importance of police accountability to the community and outlined the concept he had initiated since becoming police commissioner early last year.

``It has as a leading tenet the premise that the police should share its power with the community,'' Brown said. ``It involves forging a partnership between the police and the people.''

This means drawing citizens into identifying problems, evolving strategies to resolve them, and involving the community in solving the problems. ``In this way you empower the people by helping them deal with the quality of life in the neighborhood,'' Brown told the Monitor.

He also stressed the importance of cultural training in mixed societies, so police understand ethnic differences and view diversity as an asset.

``I can foresee that we will have a code of conduct very soon,'' Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok told the Sunday Times of Johannesburg yesterday. ``We want the communities to tell us how the police should conduct themselves.''

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Mr. Vlok said in order to achieve a nonpolitical national police force it is vital that the ``control and management of the police will have to be negotiated.'' He said stepped-up recruitment of black graduates is a priority. Whites make up only 45 percent of the force, but there are no high-ranking black officers.

Delegates said the South African police officers present responded positively to many of the suggestions by overseas experts. ``We agree with Commissioner Brown that the police force has to be accountable to the community,'' said Deputy South African Police Commissioner Mulder van Eyk. ``We are going to analyze everything that was said at this conference, and we will draw whatever lessons we can from what has been said here.''

Since President Frederik de Klerk embarked on political reforms 16 months ago, various steps have been announced to bring the police into line with the new approach. These have included internal seminars to explain the new politics, a ban on membership in political parties, and the merging of the hated security police into a broader crime-combatting forces.

But alleged police bias against the African National Congress, evidence of police hit squads, and excessive force used in controlling black protesters remain obstacles to improved community-police relations.

Deputy Law and Order Minister J.H.L Scheepers said a review of police training was already under way to ensure an apolitical and professional force. ``It is realized that there is no place for people in the force who are unable to work together with people of other races,'' he said.

The conference was organized by Profs. Philip Heymann of Harvard University's Center for Criminal Justice and Anthony Mathews of the Centre for Criminal Justice at the Univeristy of Natal in Durban.

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