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THE situation was grim for residents of Sandringham in 1995. Crime in this middle-class suburb was out of control. "We had two choices," says Lionel Stein, who has lived there all his life: "join up with the police or become vigilantes."

As residents became more and more desperate, police offered a reservists' course. Stein and 150 other residents signed up for it. "I had intended to drop out," he says. "I had never even held a gun. But then came a lecture on community policing, and it changed my perceptions."

Community policing is what makes a police service different from a police force. "As it is today," he says, "police work with the community - we would rather solve the problem than arrest the person."

It is a partnership between the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the community, two entities with a single aim: to rid the area of crime. "In terms of any partnership, both sides see that each is working honourably. That's the spirit of community policing forums."

Stein is the board chair of the Johannesburg area CPF, working with the forums attached to 21 police stations, including Sandton and Alexandra but not Soweto, which is defined as a separate area with a separate board

CPFs are statutory bodies, given strong powers in the 1993 interim constitution - including monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of the SAPS, advising police on priorities in the neighbourhood and promoting the accountability of the SAPS to local communities.

CPFs were left out of the final constitution in 1996 but the 1995 Police Service Act refers back to the interim constitution, noting that the role of a CPF "may" include the functions listed therein. A new set of regulations in terms of the Act, which deals with powers and responsibilities for all CPFs, is currently under review. Its preamble notes that the SAPS is accountable to the communities it serves; it adds that the Act provides for CPFs to promote communication and co-operation between the SAPS and communities and "to improve transparency and service delivery" in the SAPS. It also refers to "the partnership and joint problem-solving between communities and the SAPS".

In theory, CPF jobs dovetail neatly with police work, as forum members see where the gaps are and try to make themselves useful. Not allowed to arrest, for example, or to write down statements, they can still take on a range of activities that will make policing more effective. CPFs can raise donations or solicit for equipment, like cars or cellphones - and many have done so.

"Communication and co-operation between the SAPS and communities" could well refer to a crucial CPF task: notifying police of trouble spots, say dangerous corners where illegal drugs are regularly sold, or houses where stolen goods are believed to be stored, or teenage gang hideouts - so that police can move in and stop crimes before they're committed.

At the same time, the forums should - under the original charter - make sure the police are also doing their job. The draft regulations, too, refer to their involvement in "improv[ing] transparency and service delivery in the SAPS". This role does not make CPFs popular with a number of old-fashioned, old-style police officers.

In practice, the powers and effectiveness of each CPF depend upon the police. "At station level," says Stein, "you need a station commissioner who is favourable towards the partnership. If that doesn't work, but you've got an area commissioner who is favourable towards it, it will work.

"It is also important that the provincial commissioner is supportive. Luckily in Gauteng both the Johannesburg area commissioner and the provincial police commissioner are pro-CPFs."

Johannesburg Area Commissioner OD Reddy is indeed supportive of CPFs, which he characterises as "the voice of the people". They are, he says, "vital in crime prevention and crime reduction". Their roles include "monitoring of police actions to ensure transparency and accountability; mobilising community support in crime detection; improving relationship with the community; engaging in social crime prevention initiatives, eg adopt-a-cop" and preventive actions taken towards drugs and child abuse.

The Gauteng MEC for Safety and Security has appointed extra staff to work with area CPFs; from an original seven, there are now 21 people working with CPFs and other community-based organisations, according to a spokesman, "assisting in the development and implementation of social crime prevention projects" - so there is political support. And the community weighs in.

A typical CPF, says Stein, has 20 to 30 active members. Some CPFs have sub-forums: special committees involving and dealing with taxis, hawkers, schools. Some have legal forums, or drug forums, which bring together experts and interact with area schools.

Sector policing - a national policy set by the SAPS - also comes into the picture. "The purpose is to involve the community in the role of policing," Stein says. "It's a combination of blockwatch and neighbourhood watch, but the police come into the equation.

"Each sector must be managed by a policeman - ideally, a fulltime policeman, but in Sandringham reservists do that job, because this is a small station.

"But the idea is that the station commissioner will appoint sector managers, and people must know to phone the guy in charge of their sector when they see something suspicious. What generally happens after a hijacking or a rape is that somebody will say 'I saw a car and it looked suspicious'. That information must pass up the line" - hopefully before an incident happens.

"When sector policing works, it works very well. We have had some great successes in two sectors."

A sector is a team: "A manager who has to be a police official - then up to the police officer to start it up as a team, as he sees fit. At Sandringham, it's a police officer and the CPF and reservists. At others it's also members of the community who are not involved in the CPF. In Yeoville and Alex, street committees are involved - [although] it is important to lock the street committees into sector policing so they don't get carried away and think they're vigilantes."

Many police stations also include a Victim Empowerment or Victim Support component - a programme begun by Business Against Crime and in many places closely linked to the CPF as well as to the SAPS.

With CPFs at nearly every police station in the country, the SAPS is studying 10 percent of them to find examples of best practice. The Sandringham CPF is among those under examination.

Stein is happy with the CPFs, by and large, under his considerable umbrella - but he does have one problem: representivity. "It is the biggest problem in Joburg CPFs," he says - "the lack of proper representivity." Most members are white. "In certain areas this is not the case - in Alexandra, Yeoville, Brixton, Cleveland, Sophiatown. And in Sandringham there are black and white members." But these forums are the exception, not the rule.

At area level, although the problem is not as extreme, still it persists. "I would like to hand over to a black chairperson," he says. "We haven't got there yet - but we will."