WANTED: A New Broom To Sweep The SAPS Clean

Having signalled that it is serious about reducing crime, the new government has prioritised improvements to policing. There are plans to use unemployed youth and street committees to assist the police, compounding existing problems. What is needed is a new broom to sweep policing clean and lead to real (not token) transformation of this apartheid era edifice.  Anti crime strategies will stand or fall on what is done – or not done – to stop the policing rot. The role of the national commissioner is pivotal.

Proposals to use unemployed youth and street committees as eyes and ears of the police are deeply flawed. The problem is that the police do not necessarily use information they already receive. There is a tendency for anti-crime groupings to resort to vigilantism, which may be linked to the failure of the police to act against known criminals.

The SAPS may also fail to exercise proper control over civilians supposedly assisting them. They have, on occasion, allegedly condoned their illegal actions.  In January 2009 an armed group proceeded past a central Durban police station – in full view of members – and launched an attack in which three foreigners died. The police subsequently described what had happened as an anti-crime operation. To make matters worse, alleged violent attacks on COPE supporters in Glebelands hostel are described by local politicians as ‘anti-crime’ activities. Do they not know that it is the job of the police, and not members of the public, to conduct such operations?  There are also cases of police referring people who seek their help to councillors or traditional leaders.

More stringent criteria are needed in selecting reservists, who may receive preference in SAPS recruitment. Criminal record checks are, in themselves, insufficient to assess moral character, especially as many criminals are never convicted. Recently three reservists were arrested for the murder of another reservist who was to give evidence in a case in which fifteen guns had been stolen at a joint SAPS/Metro operations centre. Management has thus far failed to answer questions about who was in charge of them.

There are unconfirmed reports of persons who have undergone paramilitary training being incorporated into the reserve force. These trainees have reportedly been instructed in unlawful activities (ambushing) and have also been subject to political indoctrination.  KZN has history of political partisanship in policing, which allegedly continues in some areas (perhaps because former KZP have fared better in racial transformation than black former SAP members). Now there are allegations that the police have failed to intervene to halt attacks on COPE members by ANC supporters in Glebelands. Political partisanship of any type has no place in policing.

Police management must also take responsibility for high levels of corruption and poor performance within the service itself. The disappearance of guns from SAPS and Metro police custody is not unusual. In 2008, 3 760 (43 from one station alone) went missing.  Of the 8 286 which disappeared during the past three years only 900 have been recovered. Small wonder that police members themselves regularly come under fire from well armed criminals. It would be far more constructive if ministers, instead of undermining the criminal justice system by exhorting police to ‘shoot to kill’ (italics added), were seen to be holding management accountable for missing guns.

Allegations that corruption – including in recruitment, promotions, and docket disappearances – is rife within the SAPS appear well founded. Promotions have long been a contentious issue : A number of people who are not fit to be in the SAPS, let alone hold management positions, have risen rapidly through the ranks while others, with proven track records, are not recognised or rewarded. There seems little doubt that some police members are involved in taxi businesses, or operate private security companies, through fronts. There is not much incentive to fight crime if one is benefitting from it through taxi or security interests. There are also serious allegations by police members, fearful for their own lives, that some of their colleagues engage in criminal activities.  Persons arrested by the police may continue to suffer abuse, including assault and ‘tubing’,

Nor are the bodies which are supposed to monitor police performance and investigate complaints – the well resourced civilian secretariat, and the national inspectorate of the SAPS – effective. The ICD is grossly under-resourced relative to the sheer scale of serious cases which it should be investigating.  What transparency there was in policing has decreased, with the police failing to provide public interest information.  In the immediate post-1994 period, unlike now, proper responses were received to letters, and statistical information was available. 1996 media releases by the SAPS, for example, provide totals of people killed in the province over a 24 hour period. The failure of the SAPS to supply public information suggests either incompetence, or that there is something to hide.

The deficiencies in policing appear to be in human rather than financial resources. Although stations may claim a lack of vehicles to respond speedily to crimes, a recent study disputes this assertion. Allegations that vehicles are used for private business continue. Resources are squandered when innocent people are, not infrequently, maliciously arrested. Is it really necessary for detectives, who spend much of their time in the field, to occupy suites of expensive offices, with a whole floor of prime parking space reserved for them? Would the money not be better spent on bullet proof vests for vulnerable members?  Until policing is overhauled, an offer by a businessman to pump R1 billion into crime prevention would be throwing good money after bad.

There is no indication that different levels of management are being held accountable for these problems – problems which endanger the lives, wellbeing and morale of the many conscientious, hard working police members as well as the general public. Long standing members complain that discipline within the SAPS has declined seriously. Surely it is time for some heads to roll?

The appointment of a national commissioner will speak volumes about whether the government is serious about crime and corruption. The national commissioner should be a person impeccable integrity with strong, hands on leadership skills and a proven track record as a manager and administrator of a complex bureaucracy. The appointee should not have a high political profile, given the urgent need to de-politicise – and professionalise – the SAPS.  A revamp of oversight bodies is also long overdue. The question is, does the will exist to wield that broom?