South Africans have low trust in their police and here’s why

Recently, South Africa’s Defence Minister Thandi Modise lamented the low level of public trust in law enforcement agencies in the country.

Data shows that public trust in the police has been low throughout most of the democratic period. Between 2020 and 2021, however, there was significant drop in the level of trust ordinary people had in the police.

Between 1998 to 2010, the average level of trust in the police was relatively static. It ranged between 39% and 42% in all but a few years. This was followed by a sharp decline between 2011 and 2013, following the killing by police of 34 striking miners at Marikana, North West Province, in August 2012. But confidence had almost returned to the 2011 level by 2015.

The 2016 to 2020 period was characterised by modest fluctuation between 31% and 35%. The hard COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the state in 2020 saw instances of police brutality. However, we did not observe a decline in public confidence in the police during the the 2020 period. In 2021 public trust in the police dipped to a low 27%. This appears to be linked to the July 2021 social unrest.

Based on the survey evidence, various factors influence public trust in, and legitimacy of, the police in South Africa. These are briefly summarised below:

Experiences of crime: Those who had been recent victims of crime displayed significantly lower levels of trust in the police.

Fear of crime: Higher levels of fear are associated with lower trust in the police. This applies to classic measures such as fear of walking alone in one’s area after dark, as well as worrying about home robbery or violent assault. These associations have been found across multiple rounds of surveying.

Experiences of policing: Negative experiences with police have a bearing on how the public judge police. Those reporting unsatisfactory personal contact with police officers expressed lower trust levels than those reporting satisfactory contact.

Instances of police abuse or failure: These can also reduce public confidence in police. Apart from the the 2012 Marikana massacre, another prominent example is the perceived ineffectiveness of the police in responding to the July 2021 social unrest.

Police corruption: These have a strong, negative effect on confidence in police.

Perceived fairness and effectiveness: Past in-depth research has shown that the South African public strongly emphasises both fairness and effectiveness as important elements in their overall assessments of confidence in police. The more the police are seen to be acting unfairly on the basis of race, class or other attributes, the more people are likely to view them as untrustworthy.

Democratic performance and trustworthiness: Public confidence in democratic institutions has shown a strong downward trend over the past 15 years. This has had a bearing on confidence in the police.

Recent recommendations put forward by the Institute of Security Studies could improve public attitudes towards the police. They include dispensing with an excessively hierarchical police culture, promoting competent and ethical police leadership, as well as strengthening other parts of the overall system of police governance.

These ideas warrant serious attention. They matter fundamentally for preventing further instances of police misuse of force, corruption among senior officials, and police ineffectiveness in handling crime. This is crucial for stemming and reversing the eroding confidence in the badge.

Credit: Benjamin Roberts (Acting Strategic Lead: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, and Coordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), Human Sciences Research Council)

Steven Gordon (Senior Research Specialist., Human Sciences Research Council)

The Conversation

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