Surprisingly, the announcement that the South African Police Services is to close its internal Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) by the end of the year has barely made the news. Yet hardly a week goes by without media reports of police members implicated in activities from petty theft to cash-in-transit heists. Corruption also reaches into the most senior echelons of the SAPS as is clear following the conviction of the former national head of Organised Crime Unit, Assistant Commissioner Albert Eksteen on 26 counts of fraud involving R46 000.
Combating corruption has been an official priority of the South African Police Service for a number of years. Towards this end it has primarily been the responsibility of the ACU to investigate incidents of corruption reported against police members. Between 1996 and 2001 a staggering 23 246 cases of police corruption were reported the ACU. This resulted in the disruption of the activities of thousands of corrupt police officers who were arrested and 638 criminal convictions against corrupt members of the SAPS.
With the closure of the ACU there will no longer be a self-contained unit trained and dedicated to rooting out corrupt police officers. This is in stark contrast with the Department of Correctional Services decision to reconstitute its internal anti-corruption unit following the exposure of endemic corruption by the Jali Commission. Moreover, there is no official SAPS strategy to proactively tackle corruption in the police. This throws into stark relief statements made by the National Commissioner Jackie Selebi and other police officials that corruption will not be tolerated in the SAPS. It also has the effect of leading the public and ordinary police members to question the commitment of the SAPS to rid itself of corruption.
Following the announcement of the units closure, police spokesperson Director Phuti Setati was reported in a Sunday newspaper as saying that "The investigation of corruption is the duty of each and every member of the service and not a certain sector of the South African Police Service." While this statement reflects an ideal situation, it does not reflect the current organisational reality of our police service. Like many police agencies internationally, the SAPS experiences an organisational characteristic referred to as the 'blue curtain'. This describes a situation in which police members generally do not report on each other's indiscretions or misconduct. Police work takes place in messy and difficult circumstances which motivates officers to 'stick together' and 'watch each others backs'. Those officers that do report on their colleagues can expect to be labelled as "sell outs" and often find themselves alienated and without support from their fellow officers. This dynamic makes it exceedingly difficult for police members to report or investigate their colleagues even where it is necessary.
The norm for most of the rank and file is that even if you suspect your colleague is up to something, it is better to look the other way than risk getting involved. Consequently, police members who are given the task to investigate corruption committed by other police members typically find that they do not receive cooperation from the suspect's colleagues. It is also not uncommon for investigators to experience verbal abuse and intimidation, sometimes even death threats while investigating such cases. Police officers involved in corruption have access to weapons and criminal networks and have a lot to lose if they are caught. Many corrupt officers will not hesitate to commit violent or other crimes to ensure they are not exposed.
The extensive internal networks that police members build up over their careers also means that it is relatively easy for them to uncover information about the investigation such as the evidence collected or the identity of the "whistleblower", particularly for senior officers. Those with knowledge of police corruption are generally very hesitant to report police corruption for fear of reprisals and will not do so if their anonymity is not guaranteed. It is therefore important the police corruption investigations are carefully managed in secured environments to prevent any kind of interference or information leak.
Furthermore, corrupt police officers are aware of how crimes get investigated and are likely to be more adept than ordinary criminals at covering their tracks. Sometimes it requires a highly secretive and carefully planned "sting" operation to catch corrupt police in the act to enable a successful prosecution. Apart from time, these operations also require particular skills and resources.
It is for these reasons that many police services around the world have established strong and independent internal units dedicated to the task of tackling police corruption and criminality. If staffed by experienced, dedicated and carefully selected investigators, such units can become a formidable weapon on the fight against police corruption. Ideally, such a unit should be protected from outside interference and report directly to the head of the police agency once investigations have been completed. If they prove their worth, police internal affairs or anti-corruption units can lead to increased confidence both within and outside of the police agency that corruption which is reported will be thoroughly dealt with. This could have a deterrent affect for those police officers who have yet to cross the line. Moreover, police members who have been falsely accused will also benefit as they can be quickly cleared.
It is not clear why the decision was made to close the ACU. If there were shortcomings with the Anti-Corruption Unit, surely these could have been addressed through restructuring, re-staffing or improving the resources of the unit. Closing down the only unit that is dedicated to tackling police corruption will only put a smile on the faces of corrupt police members.
Gareth Newham is a former Project Manager in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In the Sowetan, 31 October 2002.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation