By Craig Oosthuizen
Over the past year, people filed 6 728 cases of criminal and professional misconduct against police officers with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). This number represents 4.3% of active police officers (officers employed in terms of the SAPS Act).
According to IPID, its role is to “ensure independent oversight” over the police, which involves investigating criminal offences by the police and making appropriate recommendations. IPID reports to the Minister of Police and has oversight over SAPS as well as municipal police services, such as the Cape Town Metro Police.
The 2011 IPID Act imposes greater reporting obligations on the police. It provides us with a clearer picture than ever before of the levels of criminality and misconduct within the police service.
Section 28 of the Act requires IPID to investigate: deaths in police custody; deaths as a result of police action; complaints related to the discharge of a police firearm; rapes by police officers; rapes in police custody; complaints of torture or assault by police officers; police corruption, and any other matters referred to IPID by its Executive Director, the Minister of Police, an MEC, or the Secretary of Police.
IPID investigated 7 277 cases in the 2012/2013 financial year, including 549 cases carried over from the year before. The vast majority of reported cases involved members of SAPS, with only 165 cases reported against members of the municipal police services.
Most of the received cases were for assault — 4 131 cases in total. Roughly 30% were for assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm and the rest were mostly for common assault. People also reported 50 cases of torture by police officers. Unfortunately, Parliament only passed legislation making torture a criminal offence in July this year, 15 years after South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1998. This meant that until recently, cases of torture (like those in the IPID report) could only be prosecuted as cases of assault.
147 incidents of rape by police officers were reported, with 55 cases involving on-duty and 92 involving off-duty police officers. Unlike other offences, the IPID Act requires IPID to investigate allegations of rape regardless of whether the officer concerned was on duty at the time. People reported 22 cases of rape while in police custody; 13 of these were allegedly committed by police officers. This demonstrates a lack of proper monitoring and oversight of persons in custody.
Even more damning are the 275 deaths that occurred in police custody: 96 were allegedly due to suicide (35%); 80 people died of injuries they sustained before arrest (29%); and 77 were reported to have died of natural causes (28%). In most cases of alleged suicide (75%), people used prohibited items such as belts or shoelaces to commit suicide. This again demonstrates a lack of proper monitoring or custody management. Most of the deaths caused by prior injuries (91%) were the result of injuries sustained during vigilante attacks.
Although many deaths were reportedly due to natural causes, there is reason to doubt the reliability of this statistic. Previous research into pre-trial detention conditions has revealed that inmates are often not properly medically assessed when they are admitted; many inmates do not receive medical attention or are ignored when they complain of sickness and pain; and often the doctor who is said to have certified the death fails to sign the forms. This raises concerns as to whether people in custody receive proper medical attention, and whether these deaths could have been prevented.
IPID also investigates “death as result of police action”. It is important to note that each of these cases may involve more than one fatality, because reported cases refer to single incidents rather than the number of people killed. For example, the police shooting of striking miners at Marikana resulted in 34 deaths but only one case was registered, and 270 striking workers received wounds serious enough to qualify as possible attempted murder.
Last year IPID investigated 431 cases involving 485 deaths. This includes 156 cases of people killed during an arrest. 539 cases were also brought against police officers for attempted murder; again, many of these cases involved multiple victims.
IPID investigated over 120 new cases of corruption last year. Of those, 75% were for extortion or soliciting a bribe. It also received six cases for systematic corruption, defined as “an institutionalised, endemic manipulation of a system by individuals or networks/organisations, taking advantage of weakness in the processes and systems for illicit gain, where there are leadership deficiencies, collusion and/or abuse of power.”
Once IPID completes a criminal investigation and finds evidence that police officers broke the law, it refers the recommendation to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Of 1 088 criminal recommendations, 545 were referred to the NPA. The rest were not referred because IPID could not substantiate the allegations. Most of these referrals were for assault (384), with 46 being for death in police custody or as a result of police action, and 12 being for rape by a police officer or by someone else while in police custody. 57 police officers were convicted during the reporting period, with the majority of the convictions (27) being for death as a result of police action.
IPID made 1 044 disciplinary recommendations last year, but only managed to refer 788 recommendations to SAPS during the reporting period. The other 256 recommendations still need to be referred. 84 disciplinary convictions were made against members of the police. Some disciplinary actions were startling: some cases of murder and rape resulted in little more than a written warning. In two cases of attempted murder, the officers were only required to attend corrective counselling. This is concerning in light of a SAPS internal audit from August, which revealed that 1 448 police officers continued to actively serve despite being convicted of criminal offences.
The IPID Act, by increasing the mandate of IPID in terms of criminal investigations and reporting, offers the opportunity to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the police service than has been possible before. In order to foster an atmosphere of accountability, officers accused of criminal offences should be suspended until their guilt or innocence has been determined in court. Members of the police found guilty of a criminal offence should without exception be dismissed from the police service. This is essential to build a democratic, effective and accountable police service under professional and ethical command.
Original image of rotten apples by Alison E Dunn (CC BY 2.0).
Originally published in GroundUp.org.za on 09 October 2013