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Police data shows a disciplinary system in a state of c...

South Africa

OP-ED

Police data shows a disciplinary system in a state of collapse as conflict rages in SAPS upper echelons

From left: National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | Jeremy Vearey. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | Police Minister Bheki Cele. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jaco Marais)

The SAPS’ disciplinary system has all but collapsed, as is clear from statistics presented to Parliament last week. Instead of being used to clean out the rank and file, it is being used to address high-level conflict in the upper echelons, as evidenced by the dismissal of Major-General Jeremy Vearey and action against other senior figures embroiled in the conflict.

David Bruce is an independent researcher. Gareth Newham is the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. This article was written as part of research on the SAPS disciplinary system carried out on behalf of the Institute for Security Studies.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) disciplinary system is clearly in crisis. SAPS has dismissed Major-General Jeremy Vearey over social media posts allegedly disrespectful to National Commissioner Khehla Sitole. Other senior commanders are embroiled in conflict with the SAPS related to disciplinary processes against them. These suggest that the disciplinary system is being used to address high-level conflict in the organisation.

Outside of this, SAPS figures reported last week show that very few SAPS members are effectively disciplined for misconduct. And SAPS disciplinary data does more to obstruct than facilitate outside scrutiny of disciplinary system effectiveness.

Against a backdrop of persistent top leadership conflict, with disciplinary steps initiated against various high-ranking members, there is little evidence that the disciplinary system is being used purposefully to address serious misconduct in the SAPS. Instead, statistics show that the police disciplinary system has been undergoing a steady collapse.

At a meeting of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police last week, the SAPS released its latest discipline statistics. It stated that in the 2020/21 financial year, it had received 4,087 cases against 5,708 police members. These included allegations that the SAPS had received directly and disciplinary recommendations from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). The SAPS said it had managed to “finalise” 2,404 of these disciplinary matters.

What the SAPS presentation did not say is that the statistics presented are further proof of a collapse in the disciplinary system that has unfolded over the past 11 years. The number of sanctions and other disciplinary outcomes (members found guilty, cases withdrawn) over the past financial year (April 2020-March 2021) is in the region of only 20% of what it was in 2010/11. 

This, at least, is what one can surmise from the disciplinary data reported by the SAPS. In its 47-page report to the portfolio committee, the SAPS does not answer key questions about the performance of the system. The report has no overall figure for members found guilty in disciplinary proceedings or the number of cases completed with a guilty verdict. Rather than assisting the Portfolio Committee on Police in exercising oversight over how the SAPS is managing the disciplinary system, the data obstructs this possibility.

As discussed in this article, analysis of SAPS data reveals a picture completely different from that which the SAPS tries to portray. One example is that for cases received directly by the SAPS, the SAPS figure that 57% of cases have been “finalised” in fact means that 7% of members who were the subject of these cases received a disciplinary penalty. The 68% “finalisation” rate reported by the SAPS for disciplinary recommendations received from Ipid in fact means that 3% (34) of 1,270 members received a disciplinary penalty.

The importance of an effective police disciplinary system

It is apparent that there is a crisis of criminality and misconduct in the SAPS. This takes the form of both corruption and the abuse of force and allegedly extends to the top echelons of the organisation. This crisis is directly linked to the dysfunctional state of the SAPS disciplinary system.

The SAPS is the government’s primary instrument for upholding the rule of law. It, therefore, needs to be a professional and respected policing agency that serves all people fairly. SAPS members are authorised to exercise their discretion in various ways, such as in situations of arrest, the use of force, and the investigation of crimes. There is wide scope for these powers to be abused if police members do not adhere to their own regulations and standing orders.

Effective management of police discipline is therefore a core building block for maintaining a system of policing in South Africa that is effective and reliable, complies with principles of integrity and is trusted and respected by members of the public.

When discussing police conduct and accountability in South Africa, the focus often tends to be on Ipid, an investigative agency responsible for oversight of the police. But in the absence of effective internal discipline, an instrument like Ipid can have little impact on police conduct.

As highlighted in a string of recent reports by the Viewfinder investigative journalism project, the effectiveness of Ipid itself depends in part on the effectiveness of the police disciplinary system. Ipid relies on the SAPS to put its disciplinary recommendations into effect. In most cases, the SAPS fails to do this.

The SAPS disciplinary framework allows for different types of sanctions. The disciplinary regulations allow for two sanctions that impose an actual penalty: suspension without pay (for a maximum of two months) or dismissal.

Progressive discipline involves non-punitive “sanctions” such as written or verbal warnings, or corrective counselling. The warnings have no further effect after six months. Progressive or “constructive” discipline is a positive feature of the labour relations environment in South Africa. But when unduly lenient sentences are imposed for serious misconduct this undermines the task of ensuring that high standards of conduct are maintained within the police service.

In its presentation to the portfolio committee last week, the SAPS reported that it had directly received 3,401 allegations against 4,438 members. It said that 57% of these cases, 1,935 of the 3,401, were “finalised”. In addition, it had received 686 disciplinary recommendations against 1,270 members from Ipid of which 68% had been finalised (Ipid recommendations are discussed below).

Instead of figures on the number of members found guilty, the presentation provides figures for sanctions. For the 3,401 allegations that it received directly, the SAPS indicate that 677 sanctions were imposed. These were 167 dismissals, 149 suspensions without pay, and 361 sentences of “progressive discipline”.

As the SAPS report indicates, a single case may involve a number of accused. Disciplinary regulations also allow for more than one sanction to be imposed on a member. The 2018/19 annual report refers to a constable in Crime Intelligence who, after being found guilty of fraud, was sentenced to a month suspension without salary, and correctional counselling. In another case in the Eastern Cape, a captain found guilty of defeating the ends of justice was given a written warning and counselling. In one of these cases, suspension without pay for up to two months was combined with progressive discipline. In the other two progressive sentences, counselling and a warning were imposed on a member.

The fact that 677 sanctions were imposed does not mean that 677 members were found guilty. All one can say is that, of the 4,438 SAPS members who were the subject of the allegations that the SAPS received directly, 4% (167) were sentenced to dismissal and 3% (149) received sentences of suspension without pay. A further 361 progressive discipline sentences were imposed.

In other words, the SAPS figure of 57% of cases finalised means that 7% of the members who were the subject of allegations (316 out of 4,438 members) received a disciplinary penalty. Up to 8% (possibly including some of those who were suspended without pay) also received sentences of progressive discipline.

In its 47-page report on police discipline in the 2020/21 year, SAPS does not have a figure for the number of cases finalised with a guilty verdict or members who were found guilty of disciplinary violations. This information is also not provided in the information on the disciplinary system in SAPS’ annual reports. In addition, nowhere in this data is there an indication of how the types of sanctions imposed are linked, or not, to types of disciplinary infringements. 

Irregular expenditure

The recent Daily Maverick revelations about irregular expenditure on PPE procurement highlight questions about the application of disciplinary measures for breach of procurement regulations. For 113 cases involving 156 employees the SAPS reports that 99 were completed, an 88% “finalisation rate”. Linked to the fact that some of the employees were allegedly linked to more than one of the 99 cases finalised, 270 “outcomes” are reported.

Analysis of these outcomes indicates that in 52% (141) of these cases the SAPS either found no prima facie evidence (98), the cases were withdrawn (42) or the member found not guilty (1). For irregular expenditure, 5% (7) of the 156 members implicated received actual disciplinary penalties in the form of sentences of dismissal. A further 103 sentences of progressive discipline were imposed.

Ipid cases

After an investigation, Ipid may make recommendations for disciplinary measures to be taken against SAPS members. In terms of the Ipid Act, the SAPS must “initiate disciplinary proceedings” when it receives these recommendations.

In addition to disciplinary cases that it receives and deals with directly, the SAPS disciplinary system is also responsible for ensuring that disciplinary steps are implemented in these cases. Here a similar level of obfuscation applies in SAPS reporting, though a figure is provided for the number of members found guilty.

SAPS reported that it had received 686 disciplinary recommendations from Ipid. These were against 1,270 members, with 68% (469 of the 686) “finalised”. What this in fact translates into is that:

  • The SAPS charged 215 (17%) of the 1,270 members that Ipid recommended should face disciplinary action;
  • 67 (5%) of the 1,270 members were eventually found guilty in disciplinary proceedings; and
  • 34 of these (less than 3%) were subject to a penalty (22 sentenced to dismissal, 12 suspensions without pay).

As with the other categories of cases, behind the prominently displayed figures on finalisation, SAPS data shows that few of those who are the subject of allegations are subjected to disciplinary hearings or actual disciplinary penalties.

How many dismissed? 

Another bewildering aspect of SAPS data on the disciplinary system is on dismissals. Data on the disciplinary sanctions imposed during disciplinary hearings indicates that 3,805 members were sentenced to dismissal over the 10 years from April 2010-March 2020.

Each annual report separately also provides data on “reasons why staff left the department” including a figure for staff who left as a result of dismissal. This reveals that 2,469 members of staff have left the SAPS as a result of dismissal between April 2010 and March 2020. 

In other words, 35% of those who were sentenced to dismissal in disciplinary hearings during this 10-year period, were not actually dismissed. The most likely reason for this discrepancy is that over a third of members who were sentenced to dismissal successfully appealed against this sanction. A sentence of dismissal reported in disciplinary data is the sanction recommended by the presiding officer of the hearing. But it is clearly not the final outcome of the case.

The latest figures are the lowest figures for sanctions (and by implication convictions and cases finalised with a verdict), and dismissals, in the 11 years since April 2010.

The collapse in the disciplinary system was not a sudden event. Numbers have fallen since 2012-13 when the highest number of cases was finalised but the most dramatic decline in all outcomes (sanctions, not guilty verdicts, and cases withdrawn) was between the 2016/17 and 2017/18 financial years. This drop coincides with the introduction, in November 2016, of new disciplinary regulations, suggesting that this has had an adverse effect on the operation of the disciplinary system. 

The SAPS annual reports say nothing about these trends. It is unclear if they have passed unnoticed, or if there is a desire to avoid drawing them to public attention.

Deficiencies in SAPS reporting and analysis 

There are numerous other shortcomings in the data provided by the SAPS. The manner in which it is reported frequently causes confusion. A key problem is that the SAPS fails to consistently differentiate between the number of cases, the number of employees implicated, and the numbers of offences for which they are charged.

Another problem is inconsistencies with Ipid data. At the portfolio committee meeting last week, the SAPS claimed that its data is aligned with Ipid data. To a limited degree, this was correct. Both Ipid and SAPS data show that Ipid referred 686 cases to the SAPS last year. In addition, there is agreement that roughly 67 (Ipid says 66) members were found guilty.

Beyond this, there is little in the way of clarity. The SAPS reported that 129 members had been found not guilty and 19 had the charges withdrawn against them, while according to Ipid data the numbers were 34 and eight respectively. The SAPS said 22 members were sentenced to dismissal. Ipid said that six were dismissed. 

If there was effective management of the SAPS disciplinary system there would be much clearer information including analysis of trends in the system’s performance.

The shortcomings of SAPS reporting are not unique to data on the disciplinary system. As originally highlighted in research by the Social Change Research Unit at the University of Johannesburg, and discussed in the recently released report of the panel of experts on policing and crowd management, SAPS public order data does not in fact reveal trends and patterns in protest. Another concern is SAPS analysis of crime data

SAPS is an organisation with more than 180,000 personnel, a budget of over R96-billion and a complex organisational structure. Its legal and policy mandates are also bewildering in their complexity as are the crime and violence environments in which it operates.

In order for an organisation of this kind to be managed and perform its task effectively, it is essential that it be able to meaningfully capture, analyse and present the information that it has access to. This is necessary for it to effectively maintain internal discipline, as much as it is for it is to understand and respond in an appropriate manner to the crime and public order situation.

On television last month, Minister of Police Bheki Cele sought to reassure members of the public that there was a functioning system of police accountability in South Africa, as provided by the Constitution. One would think that, either through the SAPS itself, or oversight mechanisms, we would be able to get clear information about the functioning of the police disciplinary system.

A Viewfinder report on 1 June 2021 suggests that there is acknowledgement by National Commissioner Sitole that the disciplinary system needs to be strengthened. There is also a need for much clearer reporting on disciplinary outcomes if the SAPS is not going to obstruct Parliament and other oversight structures from holding it accountable. DM

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  • If you fight corruption you get side lined ,when the station commander wants to look the other way ,he will dismiss allegations with accompanying evidenceof corruption against officers,and transfer those that fight corruption from cpu to the shifts etc.I speak from personal experience,thank GOD I have retired.

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