Police as Advocates of Harm Reduction During COVID-19

Author: Michael Wilson Monique Marks

Theme: Social Science & Policy Research Year: 2022

Law enforcement officers have come under serious scrutiny during the Covid-19 lockdown in South
Africa. This was particularly true during level 5 lockdown when the role of the security services was to
ensure adherence to regulations that curtailed freedom of movement and association. Cases of human
rights violations peppered press reports and there were few reports of positive police responses. Yet a
different picture emerged in Durban where a harm reduction programme was established for homeless
people in moderate to severe withdrawal from heroin use. Police were involved in planning this medical
intervention and played a critical role in securing the programme and its beneficiaries. This article
demonstrates, through interviews with police and from notes taken during participant observation, how
the police’s view of drug use changed dramatically from being prohibitionist and punitive to being
supportive and seeking bi-directional relations. Interviews with police who were stationed in the
lockdown facilities reveal a humanisation process where for the first time, they were able to
comprehend the life stories of the homeless people who use drugs and where the homeless were able
to configure the complex mandate of the police. The outcome was that police in Durban who were part
of this intervention during the Covid-19 lockdown became advocates for harm reduction, fully
supporting not only substitution therapy but also other harm reduction services previously viewed as
controversial. A new habitus emerged, albeit temporarily and limited to Durban’s Central Business
District, within the police occupational culture. This was spurred by a dramatically changed structural
field in which they operated during Covid-19 lockdown.
Disclosure of Interest Statement:
Nothing to disclose.

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