The reputation of South Africa’s police was further tarnished in the first weeks of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown as videos depicting abuses went viral. Although Police Minister Bheki Cele has claimed that ‘there is no police brutality’ in South Africa, complaints of misconduct remain common and trust in the police is weak.
In our new book, Police Integrity in South Africa, we explore the dynamics shaping police misconduct 25 years after the South African Police Service (SAPS) was founded.
Democratising and professionalising policing in South Africa was a priority for the country’s first democratic government. Formed one year after the 1994 elections, the SAPS was to be everything the apartheid system’s 11 police forces were not: service-oriented, rights-respecting, crime-focused, restrained, trustworthy, transparent and accountable. Although numerous reforms had been completed, and much progress has been made, evidence suggests that the SAPS remains a deeply flawed organisation, characterised by malfeasance.
Through a review of relevant laws and official rules, an exploration of pertinent historical events, and an analysis of a nationwide survey of nearly 900 SAPS officers, our research offers insights into the factors and dynamics that shape SAPS officers’ attitudes and the state of conduct in the organisation.
Our survey, based on the organisational theory of police integrity, asked officers to evaluate 14 hypothetical scenarios describing police misconduct. For example, in one scenario an officer steals from a crime scene. In another, the officer shoots a fleeing suspect in the back after a non-violent confrontation.
The survey assessed officer familiarity with the SAPS rules, their expectations of discipline for such acts, and their own and their colleagues’ willingness to report such misconduct. Our review of statutes and rules prohibiting police misconduct demonstrates that the problem of police abuse is not one of legal or policy gaps. In fact, the country’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.
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.
To interpret such findings, we considered the survey results against the country’s social and historical context. For example, one in four respondents was uncertain whether the unlawful shooting scenario was a violation of the SAPS rules. One in three could not recognise that striking a handcuffed man in the kidneys or repeatedly striking and kicking a man arrested for child abuse violated organisational rules.
At face value, these findings appear inconceivable. However, they need to be considered against the country’s history of state and interpersonal violence. In the past, senior politicians of the governing party have 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 and, later, to absolve the officers involved.
As the severity of the abuse described in survey scenarios decreased, fewer respondents recognised with certainty rule violations or serious misconduct. Most respondents were unsure whether addressing a motorist as ‘asshole’ is a violation of the SAPS rules, which it is.
Failure to recognise such behaviour as rule violations may be explained in various ways. 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.
Our data suggests that failure to address misconduct in the SAPS is supported by a strong ‘code of silence’. 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.
For each scenario in our survey, we asked officers how likely they and their colleagues would be to report the described misconduct. Although 90% said they would report serious misconduct, between 20% and 40% thought most other SAPS officers would not.
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.
Although the behaviours described in eight of our 14 scenarios should result in the dismissal of an officer found guilty in a disciplinary hearing, the majority of our respondents expected dismissal in only one scenario – accepting a bribe from a reckless driver.
Half of South Africans surveyed believe that most police are corrupt and two-thirds don’t trust them. 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% experienced no sanctions because they had their cases 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.
It is not surprising, then, that most respondents in our study didn’t expect to be dismissed even for serious misconduct. It was similarly predictable that so many SAPS officers would abuse their authority in the first weeks of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown.
Our conclusion is that a serious path to reform should include, at a minimum, the selection of reputable leaders for 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. While there are many police commanders capable of doing so, inappropriate political interference over the years has severely undermined their efforts.
Sanja Kutnjak Ivković, Adri Sauerman, Andrew Faull, Michael E Meyer and Gareth Newham
Tune in today at 15:00 GMT +2 for the launch of Police Integrity in South Africa is written by Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovich, Adri Sauerman, Andrew Faull, Michael E Meyer, and Gareth Newham, and published by Routledge in May 2020.
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