William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SAPS’ rogue cops hide behind a faltering watchdog

An annual report – be it corporate or government – is less about telling stakeholders what’s happened, than glossing over failures and organisational cankers. When it documents the activities of a paramilitary, the public relations varnish hides the stench of real corpses.

The annual report of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), tasked with controlling illegal police behaviour, was recently tabled in Parliament to curiously cursory media coverage. That’s surprising, given that in 2011/12 there were 4 923 investigations into South African Police Service (SAPS) malfeasance, most seriously for wrongful actions in 720 deaths.

That’s equivalent to about two people a day dead as a result of SAPS actions. The 34 tragically killed by police fire at Marikana, in context, amount to just over an average fortnight of SAPS-linked deaths.

As disturbing as the alleged SAPS misbehaviour is the confusion of the ICD, recently renamed the Independent Police Investigations Directorate (IPID), as to what it should be doing. The key performance indicator of ICD success should be the number of rogue cops brought to justice.

Instead what looms largest in the ICD report is the number of “awareness sessions” it held, how many staff team building sessions it conducted, and how many disabled staff it has. Such avoidance tactics are understandable, however, for no matter how ICD spin the statistics, they are grim.

Adding in carried-forward cases, the ICD investigated 839 deaths in 2012, delivering 162 prosecution recommendations, in turn netting a paltry 13 convictions of bad cops. It made 168 recommendations for internal SAPS disciplinaries regarding deaths, which netted five officer dismissals.

ICD also investigated 2 912 other criminal allegations, leading to 383 prosecution recommendations, but netting only 23 officer convictions. The question, never asked in the IDC report, is whether its failures are due to its useless investigators or the useless staff of the National Prosecuting Authority.

What is apparent is that despite Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s assurance in the foreword that “civilian oversight … must not just become a rhetoric (sic) slogan”, SAPS treat the ICD with contempt. The ICD recommended internal SAPS sanctions in 1 276 cases of domestic violence, crime and misconduct, SAPS however acted in only 90 cases, mostly delivering reprimands or verbal warnings, although an attempted murder in Boitekong did elicit for the naughty cop involved a no doubt stern written warning.

Instead of examining the reasons for such pathetic interventions, the ICD focuses on its clerical prowess in meeting or exceeding targets for processing complaints. Unlike a mostly snoozing media, the parliamentary oversight committee was not fooled.

Its chair, the African National Congress’s Annelize van Wyk, lambasted the “unacceptably low” conviction rates, “no doubt due to the poor quality of investigations”. The new IPID would have to “seriously question” whether it was adequately focused on the human-rights issues that should underpin its work.

The Democratic Alliance’s Dianne Kohler-Barnard then asked the ICD’s spokesperson Moses Dlamini the most important question of the day. Were all 4 923 cases individually investigated? Dlamini admitted that it was “not possible to investigate every one of the cases individually”.

So that abysmal conviction rate is despite the ICD cherry picking what it thought were open-and-shut cases. Worse, thousands of citizens who ran foul of SAPS brutality or corruption and turned to the ICD, have been betrayed. Their protectors didn’t do a full investigation.

Legislation compelling SAPS to co-operate and to respond to the agency’s recommendations should help but Kohler-Barnard says the problem is that SAPS remains a law unto itself. Institute of Strategic Studies policing expert Gareth Newham concurs: “Civilian oversight of the police is always difficult but what is most needed is strong political support from the police minister, to compel SAPS accountability.”

Another problem was that ICD investigators get too close to the police, compromising their impartiality. “They twice cleared National Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who was subsequently found guilty of corruption and jailed,” he notes.

Newham is critical, too, of the agency’s “bureaucratic and technocratic” focus. “The statistics collected are not fit for the purpose of holding the police accountable. For example, accidental deaths caused by police drivers are lumped with suicides in custody and police shootings, which means one just can’t come to a clear picture.”

There is a huge cost to the inability of the failure of the ICD to rein in SAPS violence. In the year 2011/12 a third of the SAPS budget was earmarked for contingent liabilities. Most of this is for civil claims against SAPS amounting to R14.8 billion.

It is predictable, then, that the ICD/IPID will try to shield its failures from public scrutiny. The agency did not alert the media to its 2011/12 report, didn’t respond to questions from this columnist regarding the report, and failed to hold the customary media briefing at Parliament because its “principals were not available”.

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