IN THE light of a spate of recent attacks on police officers in SA — there have been six deaths over the past two weeks, bringing the total number of personnel lost so far this year to an unacceptable 53 — President Jacob Zuma is correct in calling for public debate on the issue.
The culture of violence, vigilantism, disrespect for the rule of law and patchy quality of policing are not new problems, but the increasingly fractious political climate, stagnant economy and high youth unemployment appear to have heaped pressure on an already overburdened and underequipped police force.
Both the government and civil society need to act to prevent the situation spinning out of control. Events such as the Marikana massacre and the rising incidence countrywide of communities taking the law into their own hands illustrate that this can happen all too easily.
However, it is worrying that Mr Zuma’s first instinct is to wonder out loud whether police are being too “soft” and “democratic” in the way they deal with suspects.
That is the kind of mentality that informed former national police commissioner Bheki Cele’s “shoot to kill” comments and justified the government’s decision to remilitarise the police ranking system and command structure.
It is the kind of kragdadige mindset that gives rise to situations such as Marikana and the innumerable other examples where police officers have used excessive force, often with fatal consequences.
Violence begets violence — “soft” policing methods should always be the first option, but this does not preclude a firm response to criminality.
It is possible for police to be both effective in preventing and investigating crime, and protect themselves, without having to resort to apartheid-era repressive tactics, as Mr Zuma put it.
Policing a constitutional democracy demands respect for the rule of law on the part of the authorities, a concept it is not always clear Mr Zuma’s government understands.
That means honouring court rulings, for a start, but also ensuring that the police are properly trained and focused on doing the job they are paid to do.
Violence, whether overt or not, will always beget more violence.