Lockdown brings predatory policing to our suburbs

  • KevinGreenbergandStefniePerlman
For Kevin Greenberg and Stefnie Perlman, a recent “date night” turned into a nightmare when they became victims of harassment and verbal abuse by two policemen who identified themselves only by saying that they were from Edenvale Police Station.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 23, 2020

“I want people to be aware of what’s going on in our suburbs. It was traumatic, and I don’t want someone else to go through this,” says Greenberg. He reported the incident to the station, and says “it’s being taken seriously by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the colonel of Edenvale Police Station”.

He has also reported the incident to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), an agency of the South African government responsible for investigating complaints against the SAPS and municipal police services. He says he plans to sue, and his lawyer believes he has a case.

On the evening of 9 July, Greenberg and his girlfriend decided to go on a “date night” – not easy under lockdown. They drove around, bought desserts from Woolworths, and parked their car at the corner of Elm and Linksfield roads where they ate, listened to music, and looked at the night sky.

“About 15 minutes after we parked, at about 23:00, two cops arrived on either side of us and demanded to search the vehicle. They gave no reason for the search, and refused to identify themselves besides saying that they were from Edenvale Police Station.” One kept taking off his mask, and both refused to keep a social distance, Greenberg says.

According to his account, the police were verbally aggressive and abusive, making statements like, “We are the law so you must listen to us”; “White people must listen to black people”; and “There will be justice for George Floyd.”

At one point, one of the police called Perlman “a racist white b*tch”, and threatened to take her to the station to be physically searched, says Greenberg. While she was emotional, he tried to stay calm. He took a couple of photos of the officers, which angered them further.

Greenberg was relieved when a private security patrolman arrived and asked what was going on. It diffused the situation, and the policemen soon left, but the couple were shaken by the encounter. They say it may have an impact on their decision to stay in South Africa or not.

The SA Jewish Report contacted the Edenvale Police Station and IPID for comment, but had not received a response at the time of going to print.

The incident happened before the imposition of the latest curfew by President Cyril Ramaphosa. On 15 July, Police Minister Bheki Cele said that the SAPS would ensure that South Africa’s lockdown regulations were enforced through increased police visibility, roadblocks, and patrols.

“There will also be random stop-and-search operations to ensure that the prohibition of the transportation of alcohol and tobacco isn’t being subverted,” he said. “Throughout all of this, law-enforcement officials will be dependent on the co-operation of community members to ensure that these operations are handled in the best possible spirit and with the least disruption.”

David Bruce, an independent researcher specialising in policing and public security, says, “It’s not strictly true to say that police are given more powers during the lockdown, but what is true is that the range of laws that they are enforcing has expanded.” This means that it’s likely that the South African Jewish community might have more interaction with the police than previously.

So, what do you do if you are stopped, searched, or confronted by police? Bruce advises to act with caution. Just like Greenberg kept calm, it’s vital to avoid aggression, be polite, and to try to establish a rapport.

An interaction may become confrontational because “often, some police officers don’t know how to negotiate simple differences of opinion. They experience any contestation as a threat to their authority. Their jobs require them to exercise authority, and once they start to feel that they may not be able to do this convincingly, it makes them very insecure,” says Bruce.

After hearing Greenberg’s story, Bruce surmised that this could have been “a situation of predatory police conduct. It seems likely that the agenda of the police involved in this situation wasn’t limited to law enforcement, and was possibly linked to a corrupt motive.”

He notes that this isn’t always the case, and just like in any organisation, some people are aggressive and others aren’t. One of the factors that might lead to a situation escalating is if one is isolated, as Greenberg and Perlman were. More witnesses create a more stable dynamic.

Often, the civilian will become agitated, leading to an aggressive response by the law-enforcement officer, “who is required in his occupational capacity to get the upper hand. He may feel obliged to do this whether by lawful means, bullying, or beyond that,” says Bruce.

While staying calm, Bruce says filming the incident or taking pictures may help in cases of aggression, but it could also provoke further anger. It’s a delicate balancing act that has to be evaluated individually.

He says he rarely hears of police interaction becoming racial or personal. Police officers mentioning Floyd and making racial slurs shows “heightened awareness and sensitivity around race”, and may have meant that these particular officers were acting from a place of personal anger.

Bruce says that while police brutality is quite widespread in South Africa, it usually targets specific communities where crime is more common. With the lockdown, this has the potential to expand.

Such a case must be reported to IPID, he says, and the police station concerned, and he applauds Greenberg for taking these steps. While it’s debatable if their complaint will be resolved to their satisfaction, civilians should still empower themselves by going on record and pushing for an investigation. The fact that this complaint is being investigated is a positive development in keeping police brutality in check.

It’s also important to note the identifying features of the officers concerned. Speaking to a local councillor could also have an impact.

“In the literature on police corruption, they talk about ‘grass eaters’ and ‘meat eaters’. ‘Grass eaters’ will be corrupt if the opportunity comes their way, while ‘meat eaters’ will aggressively pursue opportunities for self-enrichment,” says Bruce. “It sounds like this incident was probably more the latter.

“The minister of police suggests that we don’t have these problems in South Africa, but the opposite is true,” he says. “Don’t think that we don’t have our own ‘George Floyds’. The systems of control, management, and supervision are too weak to manage police effectively, and control these problems in a meaningful way. That’s why it’s vital to remain calm in confrontation with the police, and then report such incidents for investigation.”

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