The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) has noted with distress the unfortunate loss of life which was reportedly ended inside the premises of the Tembisa Provincial Tertiary Hospital yesterday morning.
It is understood that the perpetrator is a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS), whom at the time of this occurrence was in possession of a marked state vehicle, and in full uniform.
Such regrettable acts dent the image of the SAPS as an organisation, and while we abhor and sturdily discourage such acts, their frequency among members, we believe, are partly as a result of the deep-rooted underlying challenges faced by many among the SAPS ranks.
The acts of suicide within and among members of the SAPS are at an alarming level, with an average of at least 20 reported cases over each of the past 2 years, calling for urgent measures by all stakeholders to enhance their roles in curbing this trend as policing is becoming more stressful when compared to other careers or professions.
It is more challenging because most officers are always exposed to incidents that place their lives in danger, and the nature of their work is such that the gruesome scenes they witness bear conditions of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock which usually involves the disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recalls of the experience encountered, and therefore resulting in dulled responses to others and the outside world.
These stress levels affect individuals, their families, the SAPS as an organisation and the community at large, all while a study on South African suicide rates reveals that officers of the SAPS are eleven times more likely to commit suicide than the average South African citizen, and are five times more likely to commit suicide in comparison to police suicide rates internationally.
Our country consistently struggles with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world, and pressing human tragedies compete for police attention. This scale and scope of crime and restiveness is enough to put immense pressure on our 177 794 staff capacity that is expected to service an over 60 million population, all of which is complicated by the underlying causes of crime in South Africa, which are embedded in a complex mix of inequality, disenfranchisement and the legacy of apartheid.
This state of affairs is further compounded by the limited chances of promotions, the shortages of resources and unfair practices in relation to compensation, coupled with the reality that there are inconsistencies in leadership, which continues to cause divisions in the law enforcement environment.
All these challenges are faced at a time when the service is constrained by budgetary cuts, which pose serious risks to the wellbeing of police officers, and has demonstrated the correlation between the lack of resources and the demands of the service.
Their wellbeing cannot be disconnected from the broader environment in which they operate.
Even though the SAPS has for this purpose introduced Employee Health and Wellness (EHW) programs aimed at improving the mental well-being of members by providing psychological, emotional, and personal and work- interventions, much evidence has demonstrated that the programs have dismally failed to achieve their objectives.
This is allegedly due to reasons that these EHW representatives, usually psychologists and priests, are not doing what is required of them or they do not understand their roles.
Further, there are claims of lack of confidentiality, and that there are no regular visits to victims, and that the services are stigmatised, limiting individuals’ upward mobility within the ranks.
They are reactive in discharging their duties in such a way that they are only seen at the station when there is a problem. They never seem to conduct proactive visits to ensure that the members are coping with their work or personal lives.
Further, most of the members are not familiar with the EHW services within SAPS. In this regard, it should be our collective responsibility to ensure we promote these services so members understand their impact in their personal lives and at their workplaces.
As stakeholders, we need to work together in ensuring these services are revived and effective cause if not attended to urgently, they will lead to continuous trauma and stress to employees.
We need to work to ensure that EHW representatives are not reactive in approach, and they should do more visits to police stations as opposed to inconsistent visits that are only conducted when there are challenges.
Confidentiality should be strengthened as most police officers feel their information might be compromised
All role players should do more in informing police officers about what the EHWs are aimed at, as it is currently the case that most officers do not fully understand what these programs are aimed at, and for this reason, there is a stigma created around the issue.
There is also a pressing need to deal away with the blurring of responsibilities between the two responsibilities at the top level of the SAPS to avoid the further weakening both the management role of the commissioner and the oversight role of the Minister.
The wellbeing of police officers must be of central importance to any functional police service, both for the simple reason of providing adequate protections to officers, but also because a police service works best when its primary agents feel safe enough to do their job. A police service that feels under threat can find its officers less willing to take on difficult, risky situations, and can also breed mistrust that breaks down essential community relations.
We lastly urge the police management to play their role in attending to stress caused by the lack of resources, staff shortages, unfair disciplinary issues and over-indebtedness among others.
In his state of the nation address back in 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured the nation that government will be pulling all stops to ensure we halve violent crimes within the next decade. This commitment, however, has been immediately undermined by the planned budget cuts.
For any realisation of investments that government is attempting to secure, the preconditions have a lot to do with the security situation of our country, and if not urgently addressed, such objectives are unlikely to be attained.
Issued by POPCRU on 10/02/2022