5 February 2014

South Africa: Police Oversight Bodies Failing

For three days, the Khayelitsha Commission has heard from various bodies responsible for oversight and cooperation with the police. Their testimonies have not inspired confidence.

Each is responsible in some way for making the police more accountable. But the picture that has emerged is of organisations that are neither supported nor respected by the cops. They also appear to be poorly managed.

Mr Hanif Loonat, formerly the Community Policing Forum (CPF) Provincial Chair and Mr Chumile Sali, formerly CPF Secretary in Harare, Khayelitsha spoke about CPFs and their relationship with SAPS. Mr Thabo Leholo, Western Cape head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), previously the Independent Complaints Division (ICD), gave evidence about IPID and the investigations of police misconduct. Mr Patrick Njozela, the head of the Policing Complaints Centre (PCC), gave evidence on that organisation.

The CPFs are a constitutionally mandated body designed to foster a cooperative relationship between SAPS and the people the police serve. Many CPFs are not active. Those that are active are not functioning effectively or meeting regularly.

The PCC is housed by the Provincial Government in the Department of Community Safety. They are able to investigate poor service received by citizens from SAPS, but not more serious matters, such as criminal actions. These are referred to IPID.

IPID is responsible for investigating criminal charges brought against SAPS officers. Like SAPS, IPID is the responsibility of Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa. Most concerning was the evidence submitted today that, outside of SAPS, there is very little scope to investigate complaints about the behaviour and performance of SAPS. The Constitution provides for an independent external body to be responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct. As it is structured, IPID can only investigate criminal misconduct by SAPS members, not complaints about quality of service.

Peter Hathorn, counsel for the complainant organisations, outlined his concerns about SAPS investigating themselves. Currently, if a case is opened against an officer at a police station, the station commander assigns another police officer from that same station to investigate his colleague. This lack of separation and impartiality is concerning. Today a letter outlining one of the initial complaints that led to the formation of this Commission was read out to the audience. On 3 October 2010, an elderly women was shot in the leg in Khayelitsha. She was caught in the cross-fire as police were pursuing suspects. The police initially told her that she would need to walk to the ambulance. Then they agreed to lift her to the police station, but insisted she walk to the car. She had to walk home from the hospital once she had been treated.

The Social Justice Coalition (SJC) opened a case with IPID on her behalf, as she was too scared to open the case herself. Hathorn was scathing in his assessment of the IPID investigation. The police first shot the woman and then showed a "lack of basic humanity". From the documents provided to the SJC it is unclear whether the shooting was justified.

It appears too that IPID failed to investigate the treatment of the elderly woman by SAPS officers after she was injured. The complainant body, the SJC, has received no other feedback on the matter. Hathorn described the handling of this case by IPID as "highly unsatisfactory", stating that IPID had failed in their duties. It seems that IPID are not investigating matters correctly, or responding to complainant organisations properly.

The lack of IPID independence, and the referring of cases back to station commanders, leave SAPS unaccountable in their actions. These three organisations, in different ways, have the potential to greatly strengthen policing in South Africa. It is concerning and disappointing that they are either inactive or ineffectively operating.

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