Police: the facts behind the Commissioner’s “good story”

| Zackie Achmat
Zackie Achmat.

Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing should ask police management some tough questions, writes Zackie Achmat in the second in a series of articles on policing.

In her introduction to the 2013/14 Annual Report of the South African Police Service (SAPS), National Commissioner Riah Phiyega sets out some of her successes mainly in numbers. She tells us her “good story”: 98.1% of SAPS members who attended skills development programmes “were declared competent on completion” and police arrested 1.7 million people.

There are 1,137 police stations in our country but nothing in the report tells Parliament or the public about the local functioning, their strengths, struggles, harsh conditions or the serious problems they face.

An annual report serves many purposes: it allows people who lead an organisation to reflect critically on their work; identify ways to improve weak areas; cut programmes that have failed; commend good work and hold line managers responsible for serious mismanagement. In addition to the points outlined above, government departments such as SAPS also has the obligation to report to Parliament on whether they have fulfilled their constitutional duties. Policing is a difficult and complex task and SAPS is facing a crisis. Simple questions must be asked: Does the report tell the truth about the police? Does it propose serious interventions to address weaknesses?

It is useful to compare the evidence before the O’Regan-Pikoli Commission of Inquiry into SAPS in Khayelitsha, the record of its public hearings, its report, findings and recommendations and some of the Auditor-General’s findings with Commissioner Phiyega’s Annual Report.

In the annual report, we are told that there is one SAPS member for every 346 people in South Africa. This average skews the picture because not all police stations or units have resources based on need.

People in Khayelitsha learnt during the Commission’s hearings that in relation to the number of SAPS members in their community, the picture painted to Parliament about the number of police in their community is inaccurate. Harare in Khayelitsha had 164 murders in 2013/13 but it had 1 police officer to every 1,707 people. Claremont had no murders in the same period but six times more police officers per capita at 1 for every 281 residents.

Bishop Lavis, a Coloured working-class community facing extreme gang violence, has one police officer for every 1,064 people.

Justice Kate O’Regan and Advocate Vusi Pikoli found this inequality “unconscionable” and said in their report:

“One of the questions that has most troubled the Commission is how a system of human resource allocation that appears to be systematically biased against poor black communities could have survived twenty-years into our post-apartheid democracy. In the view of the Commission, the survival of this system is evidence of a failure of governance and oversight in every sphere of government.”

Provincial Commissioner Arno Lamoer told the Commission he agreed that the way resources were allocated and the discrimination against working-class police stations was “fundamentally irrational”.

The Commission recommended that the system be changed within six months because it was neither rational nor fair.

A new policy should be population-based and prioritise areas with the most violent crime such as murder, rape and aggravated robbery.

Parliament has a duty to remedy unequal resource allocation as recommended by the Commission because the policy is not only irrational and unfair, as SAPS members said; it constitutes direct racial and class discrimination. The unfair discrimination has consequences for how crime is prevented, investigated and prosecuted.

SAPS is keenly aware of its own weaknesses but these do not find their way into the Annual Report.

SAPS nationally and provincially performs inspections of police stations and units to identify inefficiencies and shortcomings. A National Inspectorate and nine Provincial Inspectorates among other units carry out these inspections and make recommendations and their work is mentioned in the SAPS report to Parliament. As part of its “heightened focus on governance”, SAPS beat its targets, according to the report:

“A total of 1,160 inspections were conducted. This figure is 47% more than the target of 790 inspections that were planned…. 763 (95%) police stations and 41 (5%) units, were inspected.” (SAPS Annual Report 2013/14)

These numbers may look impressive but Commissioner Phiyega’s reports keep Parliament and the public in the dark on what the inspection reports actually contain.

At the Commission of Inquiry, people in Khayelitsha learnt for the first time what these reports contain and mean. The Commission had access to inspection reports conducted at the three police stations in Khayelitsha between August 2011 and January 2014; it also had a Task Team report from the National Inspectorate.

From the reports at the three Khayelitsha police stations, the Commission identified 10 key shortcomings of detective work in Khayelitsha - and probably in most poor and working class communities: prosecutor’s instructions are not complied with, sometimes for several months; warrants of arrest are not executed and particulars of accused persons are not circulated on the SAPS system; the presence of complainants and witnesses is not confirmed in relation to hearing dates; the “brought-forward” system to ensure dockets arrive at court is largely ignored and no attempt is made to rectify this failure; basic investigative aids, such as identikits and informers, are not used properly by detectives; and cases are withdrawn due to incomplete investigations, without valid reasons for the failure to complete investigations.

Inspectorate reports also found that the reason for continued systemic weakness was “improper command and control as a result of inadequate disciplinary measures” taken against detectives who fail to comply with instructions … In unusually strong language, the reports concluded that the failure to investigate cases resulted in their being struck from the court roll, which “borders on ‘defeating the ends of justice’”.

The Inspectorate Reports (provincial and national) and the Commission all point to a crisis of leadership and management, as does the Auditor-General.

The problem is not only at cluster or station level but also at the level of provincial and national SAPS leadership and management.

The Commission pointed out (in relation to a number of issues such as unfair resource allocation and inspection reports) that a range of actors have failed in their governance and oversight duties. SAPS national and provincial leadership, bodies such as the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, the Civilian Secretariat, legislatures and the Provincial Department of Community Safety for various reasons failed the community and local police.

As the Commission recommended, a management plan with a few clear strategic priorities is indispensable to ensure that children, men and women in Khayelitsha and the rest of our country are safe.

As the people’s representatives with constitutional power, Parliament has a greater duty than all of us to ask the right questions and get the correct answers to ensure that change happens in the leadership and management of SAPS.

Achmat is director of Ndifuna Ukwazi.

TOPICS:  Civil Society Corruption Crime Human Rights Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into Policing Politics

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