14 February 2014

South Africa: Are Saps Top Brass Shifting Blame to Station Commanders?

Photo: Werner Beukes/SAPA
Police on standby (file photo).

Colonel Michael Reitz, station commander of Lingelethu West, one of Khayelitsha's three police stations took the stand at the inquiry into policing yesterday. He was the first witness for SAPS to give testimony.

The inquiry is investigating the allegations that the police have been inefficient in their policing of Khayelitsha, and that there has been a breakdown in police-community relations.

While the inquiry is not an adversarial process, SAPS officers do need to respond to the allegations made against the institution over the last few weeks. For at least the last week the SAPS legal team has been subdued and their legal strategy has been unclear.

Yet their strategy continued to be confusing yesterday. Advocate Norman Arendse, the head of the SAPS legal team, led Colonel Reitz through his testimony. Arendse strongly criticised Reitz's management of the Lingelethu-West Police Station.

Arendse quoted the August 2013 Provincial Inspectorate report on Lingelethu-West.

The report stated that the station management's reluctance to discipline members has led to investigators blatantly ignoring instructions from prosecutors in the High Court. This led to a large number of dockets being thrown out of court with criminals going unpunished.

Arendse quoted damning findings from the report. He said, "Registers have not been signed, dockets have not been signed out, prosecutor instructions have not been followed. These are all things that have been raised with you before... why must a police inspectorate point out these things to you?"

Arendse pointed out that there are a high number of disciplinary measures taken against officers at Lingelethu West, and that this number has not decreased over time.

Reitz repeatedly said that when an issue is brought to his attention, he has dealt with it appropriately.

The investigation of open cases has been a recurrent theme throughout the Commission. Testimony has been heard of poor investigations and detectives in Khayelitsha having an unreasonably high number of dockets.

Earlier in the week, we heard from two retired SAPS officers who said that an absolute upper limit of 50 dockets per investigator was all that is manageable.

Reitz stated that the average at his office is somewhere between 130 and 150 per person. Arendse entered into evidence that one warrant officer at Lingelethu West has 163 dockets.

This same officer was known to attend crime scenes alone, because of a lack of resources. This is in direct contradiction of SAPS guidelines. He asked Reitz how decent investigations can be done with so many dockets. Reitz explained that not all 163 dockets required investigation and follow-up.

Reitz, who is a member of Arendse's client, was made to look bad by his own advocate. Lawyers I consulted during the break were divided as to what Arendse's legal tactics are. Most were confused about what Arendse hopes to achieve with his line of questioning.

One lawyer stated that he believed Arendse was attempting to soften the blow. This evidence would be led by the complainant organisations if Arendse didn't lead it and it would be less damaging if SAPS said it first.

Another lawyer observing the proceedings suggested that perhaps SAPS senior officials have decided to let the three Khayelitsha police station commanders take the blame for the poor police performance in the township, while allowing the SAPS National Office to retain some degree of credibility.

Perhaps the SAPS legal strategy will become clearer over the next week as we hear more from their side. On Friday, Brigadier Zithulele Dladla, the Khayelitsha Cluster Commander will testify.

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