The recent dog unit incident highlighted a number of problems confronting police transformation. While much of the attention was on the serious issue of racism in the police, some of the other broad challenges confronting the transformation of the SAPS also emerged in the scandal. Gareth Newham argues that to really tackle these problems, at the very minimum an effective internal disciplinary system needs to be in place.
Barely a week goes by without the appearance of a number of media stories reporting on alleged incidents of police criminality or misconduct. Whether detailing police involvement in serious crime, apathetic behaviour from a detective investigating a case, or rudeness from a constable in the client service center, the problem seems endless. When an incident such as the racist brutality perpetuated by the Dog Unit comes to light on public television, there is much public outrage and the temptation is for the police leadership to label it as an isolated incident involving a particular unit. However, when a further 22 cases of similar brutality are opened from around the country within the week following the incident, it is clear that there is a deeper problem confronting police transformation in South Africa.
Considering that the first attempts at transforming and improving the professionalism of the SAPS started almost a decade ago, one cannot but feel a sense of desperation over the apparent lack of success. When one examines the transformation process so far however, a number of shortcomings become painfully obvious. The initial attempts at police reform starting in 1991 could only ever have a limited impact given the fact that it was to be driven by a discredited police leadership before South Africa's democracy had been established. Transformation from 1994 onwards had more legitimacy but tended to focus predominantly on the structure of the police. This included amalgamating the old SAP and ten 'homeland' police into one national police service, changing the ranking structure, and restructuring the various operational and support units within the SAPS. The country's high crime rate diverted attention from the more difficult processes of police attitude and value change. Fighting crime became top priority so that putting in place deliberate programmes to tackle racism or police characteristics that support brutality and corruption were not prioritised. South African citizens were generally unconcerned about police brutality and corruption as long as it was directed against criminals and immigrants. As a result the laudable police Human Rights training nitiative is generally seen as having had little impact and presently has minimal status within the SAPS.
In the past year however, the Minister of Safety and Security and the National Commissioner of the SAPS have been making public statements about rooting out corruption and restoring discipline at station level. Such statements indicate a growing recognition that the effectiveness of the police service in combating crime is being seriously undermined by these problems. The statistics on misconduct and criminality are alarming particularly as it is generally accepted amongst criminologists that most acts of police corruption and misconduct go unreported.
Figures presented in parliament during 1998 revealed that the SAPS had themselves received 17 526 official complaints of misconduct against their members. A steady increase from the 11 651 complaints lodged with the police during 1995. However, during a report to parliament delivered in March of 1999, Advocate Neville Melville, the then Executive Director of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), pitched the actual number of allegations of police misconduct in the region of "30 000 per annum."
What is apparent is that documented complaints of police misconduct and criminality have been steadily increasing over the past few years. By the end of January 1999 the ICD could report a 37% increase in total complaints against the police from the previous year. From the numbers of cases received by the ICD during the six-month period from April to September of 1999, the increase is showing no signs of abating. Similarly, the SAPS National Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), an elite unit that only deals with criminal cases involving police corruption, have released statistics showing a similar trend. Whereas the ACU received information implicating 2 197 police members in corruption for 1996, this figure had increase to 4 374 for 1999. In total 13 293 members were implicated in acts of corruption in the four year period 1996 to 1999. However due to capacity constraints of the ACU only 1 993 of these members were charged and are awaiting trial.
However, the heads of both the ICD and the ACU caution that these statistical increases do not necessarily mean that actual misconduct and criminality within the SAPS is on the rise. It could be that, as more people becoming more familiar with these structures, they are more likely to report incidents and thus reporting figures have risen. Nevertheless it is fair to say that such incidents are high enough to present a major obstacle to any policing priorities and objectives as stated by senior police management. Separate figures released by the SAPS in 2000 revealed that over 14 600 police members were facing criminal charges and that over R40 million was paid out in civil claims against the police during the 1999/2000 financial year.
There is no doubt that the obstacles facing the police are many, but professionalism and discipline are key to effective transformation and crime fighting. International studies on public security reform in newly democratised states emphasises the need for the establishment of well functioning internal controls. This is seen as particularly important where a large number of personnel are retained from the former police. Firstly, it is critical that clear standards are established against which police behaviour can be assessed. Secondly, those that are not acting in a professional manner must be identified and subject to a combination of'progressive' or 'negative' discipline. The former type focusing on providing clear guidance and support so as to allow a police members to correct behaviour in terms with the new standards. The latter type focusing on efficiently and effectively removing problematic police members who are unable or unwilling to adhere to the new demands.
The arguments for prioritizing internal system of control in police services are convincing. It sends out a strong message within the police that professionalism is valued and that unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated. This can help build the moral of hard working police members as they see action taken against their problematic colleagues who are undermining the entire profession with their actions. A disciplinary system can also help build public trust in the police because ordinary citizens see action being taken when they have legitimate complaints against errant police members. Internal disciplinary systems can also help prevent high levels of police criminality and corruption. Experts on police corruption generally agree that police members become corrupt through a process of personal decision-making and justification. As some cops get away with petty misconduct they start to engage in more risky activities such as petty bribery and theft from crime scenes. The longer they get away with it, the more endemic and widespread this problem becomes as other police members start to see that they can supplement their salaries by abusing their powers with little risk of being caught. The quicker that action is taken against such activities the less it spreads. An effective internal disciplinary system will take place at station level and act as a deterrent to those members who may consider abusing their powers. By the time the ICD or the ACU are involved, it is too late.
If the Minister of Safety and Security and the National Commissioner are serious about providing a professional policing service to all South Africans, confronting ill-discipline, brutality and corruption must take priority. There are moves within the police to try and address these problems. A 'SAPS Integrity Framework' has been drafted at national level and major changes to the disciplinary system are to be introduced during 2001. However, these initiatives in themselves will be insufficient if they are not accepted as priorities for police transformation and driven from the top. The 'Integrity Framework' was developed almost a year ago and has yet to be translated into concrete action steps. The final amendments to the disciplinary system have taken approximately two years to be agreed upon in the Safety and Security Sectoral bargaining Council. It is anyone's guess how long the implementation of these two initiatives will take. In the meantime the public can expect other than ad hoc measures to address the problem. If our leaders in the police are serious about transforming the SAPS, they will place their full weight behind these initiatives to ensure that they are implemented. Furthermore, systems for receiving and processing complaints against police members should be improved and commanders should be given the authority and be held accountable for ensuring that no police members under their command are doing anything to undermine the delivery of a professional police service to the public.
Gareth Newham is a former Project Manager in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in the Sowetan, 7 December 2000.