South African Police Service - SAPS

South African Police Service. Twitter @issafrica

SAPS misconduct ‘endemic, embedded, endorsed and encouraged’

A timely new ISS publication explores the dynamics shaping police misconduct 25 years after the South African Police Service (SAPS) was founded.

South African Police Service - SAPS

South African Police Service. Twitter @issafrica

The already tarnished reputation of South Africa’s Police Service (SAPS) was further stained this week following the fatal shooting of Eldorado Park teenager Nataniel Julius by an officer, with the boy’s killing preceded by a litany of abuses by police officers during the country’s hard lockdown phase. 

Julius, the 16-year-old who had Down Syndrome was shot by an unnamed police officer on Wednesday and dropped off at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital where he died, prompting outrage across South Africa. A predictably enraged Eldorado Park community have taken to the streets to demand justice, and in scenes reminiscent of Apartheid, the police responded with violence, further escalating tensions.

The case has attracted international media attention from Washington to Taiwan.

The official version of events states that Julius was caught in the ‘crossfire’ of a shootout between police and an armed gang – but serious doubts have been raised, backed by eyewitness accounts.

Late Friday, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) announced that two police officers have been arrested following the untimely death of the teenager.

Ipid said after careful consideration of the evidence, they have taken the decision to detain the two members implicated in the alleged shooting. 

And although Police Minister Bheki Cele previously claimed that ‘there is no police brutality’ in South Africa, complaints of misconduct stubbornly persist and trust in the police remains low, says the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in their timely new book, Police Integrity in South Africa, authored by Sanja Kutnjak Ivković, Adri Sauerman, Andrew Faull, Michael Meyer and Gareth Newham.

From a ’force’ to a ‘service’

Democratising policing in South Africa was among the priorities for the country’s first democratic government. 

Formed a year after the landmark 1994 elections, the SAPS was to be everything the apartheid system’s 11 SA Police Forces were not: service-oriented, rights-respecting, crime-focused, restrained, trustworthy, transparent and accountable.

But is appears it’s business as usual, just under under a new name.

“Although numerous reforms had been completed, and much progress has been made, evidence suggests that SAPS remains a deeply flawed organisation, characterised by malfeasance and beset by challenges eating away its integrity and credibility.”

Through a review of relevant laws, analysing the historical context, and unpacking the findings of a nationwide survey of nearly 900 police officers, the research offers insights into the factors and dynamics that shape SAPS officers’ attitudes and the state of conduct in the organisation.

The book pulls no punches in establishing the state of South African policing, says Professor Clifford Shearing of the Global Risk Governance Programme at the University of Cape Town.

“Police misconduct is widespread, endemic, deeply embedded, routinely accepted, endorsed, and encouraged at all levels—including by governments. All South Africans are victimised.”

Disturbing findings

The ISS survey, based on the organisational theory of police integrity, asked officers to evaluate and respond to 14 hypothetical scenarios describing police misconduct. 

In one, an officer steals from a crime scene. In another scenario, the officer shoots a fleeing suspect in the back after a non-violent confrontation. The survey assessed police officer familiarity with SAPS rules; their expectations of discipline for such acts; and their own and colleagues’ willingness to report such misconduct. 

“Whereas any SAPS official should be able to recognise that stealing from a crime scene, unlawfully shooting someone, accepting bribes and kickbacks and falsifying official forms are violations of accepted rules and norms, between 15% and 30% of our sample failed to do so.”

Incredibly, the researchers further noted that one in four respondents was “uncertain” whether the unlawful shooting scenario was a violation of the SAPS rules.

One in three police officers “could not recognise” that striking a handcuffed man or repeatedly striking and kicking a man arrested for child abuse violated organisational rules.

As the severity of the abuse described in survey scenarios decreased, fewer respondents “recognised with certainty rule violations or serious misconduct.”

The ISS said their review of statutes and rules governing police misconduct demonstrates that the problem of police abuse “is not one of legal or policy gaps.” In fact, they say, South Africa’s constitution, statutory law, common law and the SAPS Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Regulations all include norms aimed at preventing and addressing police misconduct.

Path to reform

Failure to recognise such behaviour as rule violations may be explained in various ways, say the book’s authors.

Some officers might simply not be familiar with the official rules. Alternatively, inconsistent enforcement of rules by SAPS commanders along with the “disregard for rules and laws by top police and government leaders” may erode the effectiveness of the rules among the rank and file.

The ISS says their data suggests that the “failure to address misconduct in the SAPS is supported by a strong ‘code of silence.’” This ‘closing of the ranks’ mentality has drawn stark parallels with the Mafia’s ‘omertà’ or ‘own code of silence’ about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence.

“In policing, this code refers to a shared understanding among officers that they will neither report fellow officer transgressions nor cooperate in investigations against them.”

At face value, these findings appear inconceivable, the researchers said, but added that it needed to be considered against the country’s history of state and interpersonal violence. 

In the past, senior politicians of the governing National Party openly encouraged police to ‘shoot to kill.  

More recently, in the aftermath of the police killing 34 miners at Marikana, SAPS management attempted to orchestrate a cover-up, according to a South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) document and, later, to absolve the officers involved.

“The continued use of inappropriate and deadly force by police officials since the Marikana massacre has also highlighted the police officials’ consistent blatant disrespect for the law and their lack of will to uphold their constitutional obligation to protect members of the public,” charged the Socio Economic Rights Institute (SERI) responding to Julius’ killing.

South Africans do not trust SAPS

Half of South Africans surveyed in a recent Afrobarometer poll believe that most police officers are corrupt and two-thirds don’t trust them.

This is not surprising says the ISS, because although more than 5 000 formal complaints have been opened against police and R535 million paid out to victims of police misconduct for damages in 2018/19, just under 1% of the almost 193 000 SAPS personnel were subjected to formal disciplinary proceedings.

“Of the 1 888 officers who faced disciplinary hearings, 47% had no sanctions instituted because their cases were withdrawn or were found not guilty. Of the 178 found guilty for corruption or fraud, 108 remained in their jobs. Only 12% were recommended for dismissal.”

“If the SAPS were indeed the police agency envisaged at the birth of South Africa’s democracy, its officers should have no difficulty recognising our survey scenarios as rule violations, expecting consistent discipline for violations of these rules and expressing willingness to report serious misconduct.”

The ISS says a serious path to reform should include, at a minimum, the appointment of reputable leaders to the SAPS. 

“Leaders who are beyond reproach, and who are willing to hold transgressors accountable, able to break the organisation’s code of silence and be committed to building a culture of police integrity.” 

The authors conclude that while there are many capable police commanders committed to the task, “inappropriate political interference” over the years has severely undermined their efforts.

And as Twitter exploded with fury over Julius’ killing at the hands of a SAPS officer, the message could not be more clear: ‘We don’t want the president’s condolences, we want him to take action.’

A reluctance or failure to act will continue to breed mistrust amongst the public and continue to erode the legitimacy of police officers and government more broadly.

The arrest of two police officers implicated in the Eldorado Park teen’s killing is a step in the right direction, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggest that the South African Police Service is an organisation in urgent need of a radical root-and-branch overhaul.