Barely a week goes by without the appearance of a number of media stories reporting on actual or alleged incidents of police criminality or misconduct. Whether its official reports detailing police involvement in taxi criminality or dismissive behaviour from police in the community service center, the problem seems endless. Considering that the first attempts at transforming and improving the professionalism of the South African Police Service (SAPS) started almost a decade ago, one cannot but feel a sense of desperation over the apparent lack of success. While some specialized Units do provide a good service to the public, generally the police service as a vehicle towards delivering safety and security to the ordinary citizen is far from satisfactory. It is for this reason that recent acknowledgements by the National Commissioner that police discipline has gone out the window should welcomed as a necessary admission from the person with the most power to change things in the police. The next step however, is to follow words with action. Consequently we should expect a substantial amount of effort being contributed to ensuring that the internal regulatory mechanisms within the SAPS are efficient and effective.
Dissatisfaction with ill-discipline in the SAPS is not limited to members of the public who have unfortunate experiences with the police. Talking with any of the many hard working and competent SAPS crime fighters, it quickly becomes apparent that their sense of frustration at problematic colleagues often far outstrips that expressed by the public they serve. Apart from the well known morale killers such as inadequate policing resources or watching the hard work put into arresting criminals go down the drain due to inefficiencies of the courts, there is a lesser publicly recognised, yet major source of aggravation for many police members. This has to do with what is seen as the lack of discipline within the service. Significant numbers of police personnel continue to undermine the SAPS with highly unprofessional conduct because they "get away with it.' That is, they do not have the appropriate disciplinary steps taken against them. In many cases, even if steps are taken these are slow and for serious criminal incidents, police members are suspended with full pay for long periods of time.
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. Those that are not acting in a professional manner must be identified and subject to either '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 effectively removing problematic police members who are unable or unwilling to adhere to the new demands so as to prevent them from undermining the hard work done by other police members.
Although the SAPS has both types of discipline, the unacceptably high levels of police crime and misconduct requires a greater focus on ensuring the systems work. There is an urgent need for a coherent and focused plan of action which is made the responsibility of all police managers. Bad as they are, the official figures of police misconduct and criminality are more alarming if one considers that such statistics are commonly accepted as only revealing the tip of this problematic ice-burg. Although recent official figures of police misconduct and criminality are hard to come by, statistics 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 received during 1995. However, during a report to parliament delivered in March of 1999, Advocate Neville Melville, the Executive Director of the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), pitched the actual number of allegations of police misconduct at present in the region of "30 000 per annum."
What is clear 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, this trend 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 1624 police members were subjected to ACU corruption inquiries during 1996, this number had increased substantially to 2653 during the course of 1998.
However, The heads of both the ICD and the ACU caution that these statistical increases do not necessarily mean that 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 the top brass.
At national and provincial level, "negative discipline" is generally not accepted as a priority except by those directly responsible for managing the system. Shortcomings include, lack of coherence, understaffing, legal loopholes, station level unfamiliarity with the system, and no detailed annual analysis of systemic trends and problems. When problems in the system are recognised they are generally handled in an ad hoc and sometimes incoherent manner. There is a sense from within the SAPS that there is not the political will to tackle the issue of discipline and stamping out police misconduct head on.
If the Minister of Safety and Security and the National Commissioner are serious about providing a professional policing service to all South Africans, confronting police underperformance and criminality must take priority. This will require a significant boosting up of the entire disciplinary system including acquiring more 'disciplinary officers' to speed up hearings and amendments made to the regulations which lead to harsher sanctions for those that do not adhere to, or implement necessary disciplinary procedures. Standards of professional police conduct must be clearly set and members have to be held accountable for performance through their managers. This also means holding managers accountable for the actions of their subordinates. Unless some drastic action is taken to dramatically improve the police disciplinary system, the rhetoric delivered by the National Commissioner about removing all corrupt cops will remain nothing more than empty words.
Gareth Newham is a former Project Manager in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation