Anyone perturbed at hearing that almost 1 500 serving officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS) have criminal records – including for murder, rape and assault – can stop fretting. The nation’s top cop has reassured the Western Cape legislature that SAPS is a “good service” staffed by “several committed men and women”.
Of course, “several” doesn’t go very far in a force that has 160 000 officers, but National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega has a history of similar verbal gaffes. Earlier this year she told the Farlam Commission, investigating the 2012 police shooting dead of 34 miners at Marikana, that the SAPS actions were carried out in “a humane manner” considering the size of the operation, with “maybe one or two errors”.
She also this week accused the Western Cape government of using the community police forums (CPF) to “spy” on the police, describing the CPF as impimpi – an emotionally charged Nguni word meaning informer, for which the penalty during the struggle was often a vigilante death by burning tyre.
Phiyega was apparently referring to CPF members regularly visiting their local police stations to monitor and report back on problems. She might as well have been referring to the dozens of photographs circulating on the Internet of SAPS officers sleeping in charge offices while on duty, taken by pissed-off would-be complainants.
In all, Phiyega is having a tough time. SAPS recently took a parliamentary savaging, including from government MPs, for its report that an audit up to January 2010 identified at least 1 448 serving officers with serious criminal convictions.
More than two thirds were convicted after joining SAPS. They include a major-general, 10 brigadiers, 21 colonels, 10 majors, 43 lieutenant-colonels, 163 captains, 84 lieutenants and 716 warrant officers.
To the Western Cape legislature Phiyega argued that even bad apples have labour rights and that such officers cannot simply be dismissed. Now it appears that Phiyega and her executive officers are lamentably ignorant of their own regulations.
According to Rapport, the SAPS Act of 2012, stipulates that a police employee found guilty of transgressing the law in a disciplinary hearing or in a court may be fired summarily. The disciplinary regulations are signed by – a blush is called for – by Phiyega and the police trade unions.
It seems Phiyega has an ingrained habit of signing documents on the fly. She admitted under cross-examination during the Marikana hearings that she had signed the controversial SAPS affidavit detailing the police action without actually reading it.
Whatever her blunders, there is some consolation in the fact that for the first time in 13 years there have been no murmurs of corruption at the very top. Her predecessor, Bheki Cele, was fired amid claims of corruption and his predecessor in turn, Jackie Selebi, was sentenced to 15 years jail for corruption.
And what a mess Phiyega has inherited. Over the past 10 years the police budget has increased 222% and personnel levels by 50%, while in the past five years arrests – unfortunately mostly for petty offences – increased by 26%. Yet crime still increased last by 1.4%.
Ineffectual policing is part of the problem, another is police criminality. The Institute for Security Studies reports that brutality cases against police officers are up 313% in the 10 years to 2011/12 but a paltry 1% of criminal cases against a SAPS officer ends in a conviction.
According to the Human Sciences Research Council, a quarter of adults have encountered police corruption and two-thirds believe it is widespread. Barely 40% trust the police, while more than a third are actually fearful of SAPS.
Nevertheless, Pollyanna Phiyega assured the Western Cape legislature that SA is “safe and secure” and that her officers are doing their jobs “very well”.
That might well be her experience and that of the African National Congress politicians who are so sanguine about crime. After all, more than a fifth of SAPS’ R68 billion budget goes to the VIP protection unit.