Warning lights flashing: A brutal police force with a reputation for corruption

In a media briefing on Tuesday 6 May, Lizette Lancaster and Judith February spoke about corruption, violence and intimidation ahead of SA elections.


A major crime conference has reflected on the bleak picture of the SA Police Service (SAPS), facing rising complaints of brutality, with a reputation for corruption, and where mass recruitment has weakened systems and put poorly trained police on the streets.

Brutality cases recorded against SA police officers increased by 313% in the ten years 2001/2 to 2011/12, the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) annual crime conference was told on Wednesday.

ISS Governance, Crime and Justice Division head Gareth Newham said a total of 11,880 criminal cases were opened with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) during the five years to 2011/12, but this resulted in just 2,576 prosecutions and 129 convictions. This means that only one percent of criminal cases opened against police officials ends in a conviction. Of the 720 deaths reported to the IPID in 2011/12, 22% of cases were referred to the National Prosecuting Authority because of some evidence of criminality, Newham said.

The number of disciplinary hearings in the police which ended in a dismissal decreased from 12,2% to 9,6% between 2009/10 and 2011/12.

In 2011/12 more than a third (36%) of disciplinary hearings ended with no sanction against the officer, and a total of 2 049 cases were withdrawn or ended in a not guilty verdict.

'It appears police misconduct is met with impunity,' he said. 'The single most likely outcome of a case against the police is no outcome.' This undermines the morale and public trust in the many honest police officers who do their work professionally and within the rules.

However, there were consequences for the tax-payer as it was facing civil claims valued at more than R840 million in relation to assault, and R1,1 billion related to shooting incidents. Total claims against the police have doubled in the past two years to R14,8 billion.

In the SA police force today, Newham reported, 1,448 serving police officials have convictions for serious crimes ranging from murder to rape and assault. 'Why are convicted criminals allowed to continue to serve in the organisation responsible for law and order?' he asked during a keynote conference presentation titled Warning Lights Flashing: Exploring Police Abuses and Performance in SA.

The SAPS budget increased 222% to R66.7 billion over the ten years from 2003/4 to 2013/14, Newham said. And police personnel increased by more than 50%, or 67,035 posts, during 2002/3 to 2011/12.

But this mass recruitment into the police, while understandable in the face of high crime, was poorly thought through by police senior management and resulted in large numbers of police on streets who were poorly trained, managed and supported.

Mass police recruitment put pressure on recruitment, selection, training, supervision, discipline and performance management; and resulted in an increase of police misconduct, brutality and corruption, Newham said. 'Throwing more money and people at the police is not the solution. We don’t need more people in police uniforms – we need professional police officers who are better trained, motivated and managed.'

The ineffective tactic of mass arrests

Despite a huge 26% increase in the number of arrests since 2008/9 the overall crime rate stabilised with a slight 1.4% increase. The 1,6 million arrests made in 2011/2012 was an increase of 11% compared to the previous year, but total crime still increased by 0.7% during the year.

This showed that the police tactic of mass arrests was not just ineffective but may actually increase crime, Newham told the crime conference. International research has found that mass arrests for petty crime don’t act as a deterrent, particularly if those arrested are the unemployed or marginalized. Instead, these arrests may cause a breakdown in community relations with police, resulting in further disorder and law breaking.

Mass arrests was a failed police tactic which was not part of a comprehensive approach towards crime control, Newham said, citing evidence showing an 18,4% increase in arrests during the past three years, but a decrease of 10% in cases finalised by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

The experience of police corruption

Household experience of police corruption increased from 18,6% to 22,9% from 2007 to 2011, according to the National Victims of Crime Survey. And a study by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2011 found that 66% of adults thought corruption was widespread in the police. Less than half (41%) of the population had any trust in the police at all. In 2012, 35% of South Africans interviewed admitted to being scared of the police, Newham said.

Concern over the SAPS Performance Plan for 2013/14

Newham highlighted several problems with the SAPS Performance Plan for 2013/14, noting that it fails to engage with evidence of police abuse or poor public perceptions of police. It makes no mention of clear plans for strengthening criminal investigations and disciplinary processes against police misconduct and has no clear plan for improving police training, appointments, promotions, rewards or incentives.

The police performance plan, Newham said, does not recognize that crime has stabilized at a high rate and that current policing methods are not yielding the desired results.

There is hope in the National Development Plan, which presents clear practical recommendations for improving the professionalism of the police. It calls for appointments to senior management positions being based primarily on expertise and merit, unlike what has been happening for years now.

'It is time for senior police leadership to be appointed following a transparent and competitive process. The practice of parachuting unknown and untested people into the senior ranks of the SAPS has contributed significantly to most of the police shortcomings experienced today.'

The ISS 4th Annual Conference on National and International Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice is being held at the Rosebank Hyatt Hotel in Johannesburg on 21 and 22 August, with regular twitter updates from the ISS and conference delegates using the hash tag: #ISSConf4

For media interviews and further information, please contact:

Alexandra van Essche
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +27 (0) 82 321 1167


Jonathon Rees
Email: [email protected]
+27 (0) 76 185 1827


About the ISS:

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is a pan-African organisation that works to enhance human security in Africa. ISS undertakes applied policy research and provides teaching, training and technical assistance to practitioners working on security related issues in government and civil society. The Institute is head quartered in Pretoria, South Africa with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dakar, Senegal.

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