Theft of boots and a braai stand does not warrant harsh punishment. It certainly does not merit vigilante action, hours of torture and permanent blinding and injury. Nothing does.

It happened in uMlazi on Monday, culminating in street “justice” where two suspects were forced to drink acid. In pouring it into them, some spilt on them, rendering one sightless.

From this, and three other cases of vigilante violence in the same area this month, at least three factors emerge: community fury at crime, lack of faith in the police; and disregard for them.

Police usually warn after vigilante incidents that they are illegal and will be punished. They seldom are; the lawbreakers seeking to impose “justice” know it, and they do as they want.

Another instance this week of contempt for the police escalated into ugly defiance, and a potential Marikana, as a Sasolburg police station was besieged. Rage at merging two municipalities sparked violence, and an assault on a building filled with firearms and officers trained to use them.

A third example happened on Sunday, when a pair of burglars loaded a police van with office computers and cellphones belonging to Berea police detectives, and made off.

Police said the intruders, soon caught, did not know they were breaking into police premises. Perhaps the thieves missed the SAPS sign on the perimeter fence, the furniture marked PWD, police dockets in in-trays, and the other pointers to the identity of their target – like the pepper spray and bullet-proof vests they took.

This patent scorn for our blue line is undesirable. Police should be feared by criminals – not for brutality, but for being predictably effective and the certainty of consequences for crime. Wrong-doers have to know they will be caught, punished.

Police do a lot of good work, for which the nation must be grateful. But their reputation, and respect for them, rides on their weaknesses.