Policing South Africa through Twitter, appearance management and deceit

15 January 2016 | Story by Newsroom

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is increasingly using Twitter to project an image of competence, visibility and professional problem-solving. However, as Dr Andrew Faull (postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology) describes, this is all part of a carefully scripted public performance that may be deceiving.

Policing South Africa in December and January is not easy. With some of the highest violent crime rates in the world, and thousands of tourists criss-crossing the country, the Christmas and New Year holidays are a demanding season for the South African Police Service (SAPS).

New recruits quickly learn that securing leave around this period is almost impossible, as the SAPS looks to flood the country with uniformed bodies. Their goal is twofold: to deter criminal offenders, and to win public confidence. The latter is particularly important in light of a common public perception that police are corrupt and brutal.

In December the SAPS drew praise and criticism when it deployed unarmed student constables to bolster visibility in shopping malls. But there is another realm in which the police have recently increased their visibility without attracting public commentary: the Twittersphere.

With around a dozen image-laden tweets each day, the SAPS has used its Twitter account to bombard its many thousands of followers with images of officers hard at work.

It is hard not to be impressed by the SAPS tweets. Smiling officers pose with piles of recovered loot and narcotics, while serious-looking officers comb through crime scenes, attend roadblocks, and saturate public spaces with blue.

While these images should be celebrated, they should also be questioned, for their manufacture and publication are no accident.

Rather, they are part of a carefully scripted performance in which the SAPS is heavily invested. It is a performance that suggests it is a rational, evidence-based, professional police service that conducts common-sense activities that make South Africa safe. Unfortunately, things aren't that simple.

As I scroll through the SAPS tweets each day, I'm reminded of various experiences I've had, shadowing officers over the past decade. One memory is of weekly 'outreach' initiatives that I took part in in 2012, as part of an eight-month ethnography with police. On paper, they were excellent initiatives.

Each week a dozen or so station employees would hit the streets of the precinct on foot, ostensibly to strengthen police-community relations. The station's communications officer provided hundreds of copies of 'information leaflets' which patrollers were expected to hand to community members as they chatted with them. A marked police van led the group, and a colourful SAPS banner was hauled out from time to time, but usually only when a camera was present.

Indeed, capturing each patrol with pictures – the same kinds of pictures now tweeted by the SAPS each day – was central to these events. But the story told by the pictures did not accurately reflect the one I witnessed on the ground.

At least half the patrollers, maybe more, were administrative staff wearing fluorescent police-branded bibs. They had no police powers, were not trained in intelligence gathering, and were not part of the station's problem-solving apparatus. And yet their presence among the handful of patrolling uniformed officers, and that of the police van, clearly communicated the message that we were all police officers. In truth, the patrols were a way for administrators to break the monotony of their paper-pushing work and stretch their legs.

Very few real conversations between patrollers and the public took place on these walks. Rather, patrollers seemed to measure the value of the initiatives on whether they were able to offload the photocopied sheets and pose for a few good photographs.

One photograph I remember depicted four administrators with a group of young children and two adults from the community. All were smiling; it was a joyous scene. But what one can't tell from the image is that the adults were hopelessly drunk and could barely stand, despite it being only mid-morning.

The children, barely three years old, were in the adults' care, and yet patrollers expressed no concern for their well-being. It was a situation in which officers could easily have intervened to check that the children were safe. Instead, photos were snapped and the patrol moved on.

The picture captured that day looked great, but the story it told was misleading.

Something else that photographs of these patrols did not capture was the way they contributed to disorder. When the allocated hour was up, patrollers worked quickly to offload the remaining leaflets. They stuck them through gaps in fences, and pressed them into the hands of children too young to read.

Some dropped piles into front yards from where the spring breeze blew them down the street. The resulting litter was both a by-law offence and a contribution to disorder – in effect a contradiction of the SAPS' constitutional mandate to 'maintain public order'.

Having participated in numerous operations over the years, including road blocks, vehicle check points, stop-and-searches and building raids, I have come to think of these performances as 'public performance lies'.

By this I mean they are rituals through which the SAPS presents itself and the country with a common-sense impression of what good policing looks like. But what remains hidden is sometimes more important than what is recorded, and the police service ends up misleading itself and the public.

'Public performance lies' feed what I call 'data performance lies', as the police service aims to quantify its actions numerically. These in turn support 'internal' and 'external lies', through which a misleading narrative is fed to police managers and the public.

Taken together, these practices create a work environment for SAPS officers that is characterised by deep mistrust and suspicion.

It may not sound like it, but I am heavily invested in supporting the SAPS. Part of this investment is to remain critical and questioning of it. As such, I have been surprised by how positively I have reacted – instinctively – to the daily SAPS tweets. They make the organisation look like an impressive policing machine. And perhaps it is. But as I have hinted, things are not always as they appear to be.

Opinion piece by Dr Andrew Faull. Main image by Werner Vermaak via Flickr, Creative Commons.


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