South Africa shows that diversity is not the answer to police violence

To be Black in America is to feel trapped in a perpetual state of police violence déjà vu. It is to hear about police killings and to witness uprisings, only to hear about more police killings, and then to witness more uprisings. It is to hear the voice of exasperated relatives sigh, “Again.” It is to feel that police violence is a permanent feature of American society.

But, our history with police violence within a racist society is not unique; South Africans have similarly struggled to reform policing. Following the end of apartheid, South Africa systemically transformed their police organization into one that is diversified and looks like the community it serves.

Similarly, policymakers in the United States are calling for the diversification of police departments. The calls for more diversity suggest that violence of policing can be mitigated by officers who look like the communities they police. The hope is that more diversity will transform police organizations into friendly institutions that interact with the policed community with more respect and more perceived legitimacy.

However, diversifying the police department won’t eliminate police violence because white supremacy may permeate an institution even when the faces within it are not white.

In South Africa, the hope was that Black officers would help transform policing into a human rights endeavor. The government changed the name of the police force from the South African Police to the South African Police Service to reflect the organization’s commitment to serving the people, and the police organization adopted a human rights manual that reflected its commitment to protecting human rights and South Africans’ constitutional rights.

In fact, South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, which was finely crafted to abandon the historical vestiges of its apartheid past. It protects socioeconomic rights and reflects an affirmative duty to of the police to protect women from gender-based violence. These steps were necessary because the South African Police was the enforcement arm of apartheid and the face of apartheid. For a smooth transition into a true democracy, it was important to demonstrate the police organization’s commitment to human rights norms in the new political environment. 

The South African Police Service embraced community policing and successfully diversified its ranks. The police force went from a white-dominated force to a Black-dominated force, with 81 percent of officers identifying as Black in the Gauteng province that includes Johannesburg. Despite all the transformation and adoption of human rights protocol and handbooks, police violence remains.

South African Police Service killed 34 people during a protest in Marikana in 2012. The police shot a man who violated COVID-19 stay-at-home regulations, and there has been a public outcry about the level of violence it has adopted to enforce quarantine-related regulations. The police have ignored or were actively involved in xenophobic-motivated attacks against foreigners in 2019, 2015 and 2008, and the police used force to break up protests against the wave of xenophobia. In my own interviews with Black police officers in South Africa, I was surprised to learn that many of them look back at apartheid with nostalgia, as a time when police had more absolute power to use force and “be police.”

As Walter Benjamin observed, violence is an inherent of the law-preserving function of police, the institution charged with maintaining the dominant social order. Police violence should be expected, and the professionalization of police has failed to eliminate it. Within societies that are with a history of anti-Black racism, police will enforce white supremacy regardless of whether their troops are white or Black.

Likewise, in the United States, the hiring of Black police officers has not reduced police violence against Black people. Nationally, 15 percent of police officers are Black, which is bigger than the share of Black people in this country. Yet, police violence persists. In some cases, it might even increase police violence, as some studies show that the shootings of Black people have increased with more Black officers.

The diversification and professionalization of police forces has failed to eradicate police violence. So, pouring more resources into police to diversify their forces or spending more money on community policing is simply bad policy.

The challenge for policymakers is to achieve community safety in a manner that acknowledges that police violence is a threat to community safety. Expending more resources on community policing and diversification, instead of community-based and community-led programs, expands the reach of the police, and consequently the reach of police violence.

Isy India Thusi is an associate professor of law at Delaware Law School, where she teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, and critical race theory. She is also the Law & Policy Fellow at The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab.

Tags Police violence South Africa

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