By Lisa Vetten
Women's organisations don't often applaud the police, but the re-establishment of the specialised Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit deserves congratulations.
When former police commissioner Jackie Selebi scrapped the FCS units in 2006 he destroyed 20 years' worth of skills and experience, and also flew in the face of policing trends globally.
"Police officials and police units," Selebi opined at the time, "cannot operate in cocoons of expertise, only sharing their skills when available and time permits.
Instead, these specialised units were taken from their centralised offices and despatched to local police stations "where they are most needed … close to the homes of the victims, easily accessible, readily available".
On the surface this sounded reasonable enough, but on another level the restructuring was the culmination of a far more aggressive process to dismantle specialised units in the police generally.
On Friday all 176 FCS units were reinstated nationally in accordance with a parliamentary promise made last year by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
The minister gave the police a year to get their house in order, to employ and train staff and to find space to house the units.
Each unit will serve a cluster of between six to eight stations and focus primarily on crimes against children, sexual offences committed against adults as well as cases of domestic violence involving assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm or attempted murder.
The units will also include forensic social workers able to prepare reports for court
Specialised units have long caused envy among some sections of the police because they are better resourced than the general detective services.
Still, some officers were dismissive of the notion that any investigation required specialised skills and considered those attached to specialised units as having an undeserved sense of superiority.
So dismantling them was intended to strip them of their resources and bring them down to size.
The consequences were devastating.
Services were not brought closer to communities. While some areas previously not served by the FCS units did enjoy greater access to their specialised skills, other areas lost services. And the quality of services declined.
Local police stations often did not have space for the relocated detectives or facilities suitable for victims. Faced with conducting interviews in communal offices where victims could be overheard by others, some detectives resorted to interviewing and working from the privacy of their cars. Others had no such option because their cars were taken and pooled for general use.
Obtaining a statement would take two or three days while detectives waited for cars to become available. Poorer victims often lost access to counselling services because detectives could not as readily transport them to social workers, including when required for court assessments.
FCS detectives' budgets were also placed under the control of station commanders who did not always have a sense of their needs and failed to budget accordingly.
This had a serious impact on the collection and storage of medico-legal evidence (including DNA) in sexual assault evidence crime kits.
When some stations ran out of crime kits and had no budget to buy new ones, detectives spent hours driving from station to station trying to get kits. Sometimes evidence from a previous victim was simply thrown away and the crime kits re-used.
Most chilling of all was that the restructuring allowed serial rapists to proliferate.
Previously detectives worked across a number of stations and were based at one centralised office, which permitted ample opportunity to compare cases and identify rapes demonstrating a similar modus operandi.
Teams could be put together to focus intensively on these matters. This was made extremely difficult after officers were split up and based at individual stations.
One can only guess how many women fell victim to unnecessary delays or failure to identify serial rapists
Overall, adult women unquestionably bore the brunt of this disarray. Detectives interviewed by gender-justice body Tshwaranang on the restructuring said they were forced to prioritise children's matters (not unsurprisingly, given these units' origins in the Child Protection Unit) and had largely to abandon adult rape survivors to the inexpert fumblings of general detectives.
Research by Tshwaranang, the Medical Research Council and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation compared the performance of general detectives with that of FCS detectives in rape cases.
Where general detectives only made arrests in 33% of cases, FCS detectives made arrests in 52%. Their cases were also two-and-a-half times more likely to go to trial.
Think what these statistics mean for the quality of justice meted out to adults in the last few years.
Re-establishing the units is only the beginning. Those three years in a policing wilderness led to the loss of a number of very experienced, dedicated and highly competent detectives and it will take years to regain that experience.
What will also take time to rebuild is that crucial network of relationships between NGOs, social workers, doctors and nurses, teachers and prosecutors that is so essential to the provision of comprehensive and integrated services.
Only Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros of Gauteng has taken steps to ensure that intersectoral collaboration is resuscitated effectively. In all other provinces police management appears to have left this to luck and good will.
Finally, the officers in the Client Service Centre – the victims' first point of contact – remain the weak link in policing services.
Frequently unable to take statements of an acceptable quality and unfamiliar with the law, they have also not been adequately trained.
Information from the SAPS suggested a scant 2?491 of the uniform branch of the SAPS (which numbers more than 100 00) have been trained in the Sexual Offences Act since its promulgation in 2007.
The reintroduction of the FCS units is the SAPS' most intelligent response in years to the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa.
Will they stop at this or will they also ensure an effective, comprehensive policing response to violence inflicted upon women and children?
» Vetten is the executive director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre
In City Press.