Feeling blue: Changing patterns of trust in the police in South Africa
DATE: 23 March 2022
Ben Roberts and Steven Gordon
Wednesday 23 March 2022
Internationally, the legitimacy of legal authorities is recognised as crucial for the state’s ability to function in a justifiable and effective manner. This applies, in particular, to the South African Police Service (SAPS). Recently, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise expressed concern about the low level of public trust in South African law enforcement. Speaking at the national Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster meeting, the minister drew attention to a persisting legitimacy challenge in the police-public relationship.
To provide further context to the extent and nature of this challenge, we examine representative survey data on trends in police confidence since the late 1990s. Our research also outlines some of the variations and drivers of this policing perspective. We hope this work will be used to design interventions to restore the public’s faith in the police.
Views on crime and policing in the country have been a priority theme in the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) series since its inception in 2003. The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has been using face-to-face interviews to administer this series, which has been designed to be a nationally representative survey of the adult population aged 16 years and older. Each year, between 2500 and 3200 interviews are conducted countrywide. The data are then weighted using Statistics South Africa’s most recent mid-year population estimates.
SASAS builds on the HSRC’s earlier representative public opinion surveying, dating back to the transition period of the early 1990s. On certain topics, this allows us to extend the period of analysis back to before the early 2000s.
National and provincial trends
The pattern of public confidence in the police over the 1998 to 2021 period is presented in Figure 1. Trust levels have remained relatively low throughout this period. Not once during this 23-year interval did more than half the adult public say that they trusted the police, indicating that the issue of police legitimacy is not new.
Figure 1: Confidence in the police, 1998–2021 (% trust/strongly trust) HSRC EPOP 1998–2001; HSRC SASAS 2003–2021
Between 1998 and 2010, the average level of trust in the police was relatively static. It ranged between 39% and 42% in most years. This was followed by a sharp decline between 2011 and 2013 after the August 2012 Marikana massacre. But confidence had almost returned to the 2011 level by 2015.
The 2016 to 2020 period was characterised by a modest fluctuation between 31% and 35%. The hard COVID-19 lockdown experience, which included instances of police brutality in enforcing lockdown regulations, appears not to have had an aggregate effect based on the 2020 survey results. In 2021, public trust in the police dipped to a low of 27%. This appears to be linked to the July 2021 social unrest. Many have criticised the poor performance of the police during the unrest.
Substantial provincial variations in trust in the SAPS can be observed in Table 1. Looking at the 2010–2021 period, we find that the adult public in the Western Cape, Limpopo and Gauteng have consistently reported figures below the national average. The dramatic decline in trust observed between 2020 and 2021 was unevenly reflected across provinces. The largest decline in police confidence was in the Western Cape. It fell more than 20 percentage points, greatly exceeding the national decline of 7 percentage points. More moderate (but still sizeable) declines were identified in Limpopo, Northern Cape, and Gauteng.
Table 1: Provincial trends in police confidence, 2011–2021 (% trust/strongly trust) HSRC SASAS 2011–2021
Factors associated with police confidence
Based on SASAS survey evidence, various factors have been shown to exert an influence on public trust in, and legitimacy of, the police in South Africa. These are briefly summarised below.
Experiences of crime clearly matter. Those who had been a recent victim of crime displayed significantly lower levels of trust in the police. Fear of crime has a similar effect. 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 crime-specific fears (i.e., worrying about home robbery or violent assault). These associations have been found across multiple rounds of surveying.
Experiences of policing are also associated with confidence in the police. Negative police experiences by the public have a bearing on police judgements. Those reporting unsatisfactory personal contact with police officers expressed lower trust levels than those reporting satisfactory contact.
Well-publicised instances of police abuse or failure also seem to reduce public confidence. A prominent example is the perceived ineffectiveness of the SAPS response to the 2021 social unrest. New SASAS data on attitudes towards the 2021 social unrest demonstrate that harsher assessments of the policing response to the unrest were indeed associated with lower levels of trust in SAPS.
Perceptions of police corruption also had a strong, negative effect on police confidence. From a procedural justice perspective, past in-depth SASAS research has shown that the South African public strongly emphasises both police fairness and effectiveness as important constituent elements of their overall assessments of police confidence. The more the police are seen to be treating South Africans unfairly, the more they are likely to view the police as untrustworthy.
Similarly, perceptions that the police treat people disrespectfully, are not impartial in their decision-making, or lack transparency in the actions (procedural unfairness) also undermine public confidence. Lastly, if the police are seen as ineffective (i.e., unsuccessful in preventing, reducing and responding to crime), this will diminish confidence.
Another factor that influences how people view the police is their broader evaluation of democratic performance and the trustworthiness of government. These are positively linked with police trust. Public confidence in democratic institutions has shown a strong downward trend over the past fifteen years, as part of a general pattern of diminishing political support. Police confidence is not immune to the pull-down effect of these wider trends.
Polishing the tarnished badge
From the above, it is evident that in a high-crime and socially divided society, confidence in the police is made up of a mix of views on the fairness and effectiveness of the police, combined with experiences (and fear) of crime, contact with police, and even more general views on the functioning of democracy and government.
Low and diminishing confidence in the police, if left unchecked, will also continue to negatively shape mass views of the police. What do the survey results suggest might need to be done to shore up confidence in the police in the country? The work of the Institute of Security Studies is essential here. Suggestions include dispensing with an excessively hierarchical culture, promoting competent and ethical SAPS leadership, as well as strengthening other parts of the overall system of police governance.
Another key intervention is the implementation of a non-militaristic policing ethos. This should be framed around a service culture and the use of minimal force. It also requires SAPS to put more measures in place to monitor and control the use of force, and promote a culture of police accountability.
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.
Dr Benjamin Roberts, Acting Strategic Lead and Research Director in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Cell: 0845230374.
Dr Steven Gordon, Senior Research Specialist in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division, Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Email: email@example.com, Cell: 0842499799.