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Crime Takes its Toll on Community Crime Fighters

9 July 2007

By Tamar Kahn

MPHO Fortune's voice is steady as he quietly relates a recent experience as a community policing forum volunteer on the streets of Dobsonville - helping cut down the body of a police reservist who hanged himself.

"The very next day, I saw another dead body," the 23-year-old says. "We see bad things every day. You go to bed, and you have flashbacks, and you don't know what to do... I've been at the point where I cried myself to sleep," he says.

The forum's members, many of whom have been volunteers for years, face a daily diet of death, rape and assault as they help the police patrol the streets of one of SA's most violent suburbs. They are often the first port of call for distressed residents, who may wait hours for the over-stretched police to arrive. They receive no pay, no training and little psychological support.

"They are outside at night, encountering people who have been murdered and raped. These things really disturb them. Some of them cannot take it," says the forum's chairman, Peter Taele.

Community policing forums are partnerships between police stations and communities that aim to improve safety by combining citizens' resources with those of the police. They are intended to promote police accountability, and to help the community advise police on their priorities.

About 50 volunteer patrollers crowd into a small hall on the grounds of Dobsonville Police Station, Soweto, for a workshop on preventing suicide.

The station has seen a surge in suicides among its officers in recent months, and addressing the issue is a priority for officers and volunteers alike.

Staff from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), a nonprofit mental health advocacy group, explain the emotional toll that exposure to violence and trauma can exact on the volunteers and their families, whether they be witness or victim to such events. They urge volunteers to talk about their feelings, to let go of their anger, fear and pain.

The response they elicit from the audience is intense.

A stony-faced woman, her arms crossed over her stout chest, bursts into tears as she describes finding a suicide note written by her daughter, who says she plans to kill herself next month. A youth apologises to his elders for speaking his mind, and then urges his fellow men to let go of their anger and cry, to murmurs of approval from the women in the crowd. And then a man who asks not to be identified stands up and challenges the police force to confront its own demons.

The workshop was to have included 300 police officers but top brass cancelled their participation at the 11th hour, citing procedural flaws in the way the Dobsonville police station had organised the workshop.

A few social workers employed by the police force are present, and there are a couple of lay counsellors in the audience, but the men and women in blue remain outside in the thin winter sunshine.

"I'm so hurt the police are not here," cries the unidentified man. "We need to face reality, and suicide is the reality. We have lost five police officers to suicide since February." Taele confirms the figure. The police had not responded to a request to confirm the incidents at the time of going to press.

"Suicide is ruling in this police station," says a distressed lay counsellor. "I lost this guy, I thought I got through to him, but he hanged himself. You feel so guilty. I'm single, I work 12 hours a day with no salary, just a stipend. We really need help. Sometimes I feel like committing suicide myself," she says, her voice cracking.

The police force's Employee Assistance Programme is, by its own admission, hampered by a desperate shortage of staff and cannot meet the demand for its services. Sadag has worked hand in hand with the police for 10 years, running suicide-prevention workshops to complement those provided by its in-house services in all nine provinces.

The need for their services becomes increasingly apparent as the workshop draws to a close. An off-duty policeman in civilian clothes stands up and says: "We are human. When you see someone has raped a woman, molested a child, you worry, what if they get their hands on your woman, or your child?

"Maybe top ranks think when they are giving us guns and bullet-proofs we are safe, but we are not. Two weeks ago I buried my colleague. Dobsonville SAPS has a very, very big problem."

Editor's note: This article is part of an occasional series on mental health and the police, supported by a fellowship from the US-based Carter Center in Atlanta.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from Business Day.

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