Opinionista Ivo Vegter 3 February 2015

The broken blue line closes ranks

Police commissioner Riah Phiyega and her spokesperson, Solomon Makgale, did not take kindly to a recent IRR report entitled the Broken Blue Line. This report claims serious crime committed by police officers remains a big problem, and efforts to combat it have been ineffective. So, who is right?

Last week, the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) released The Broken Blue Line 2. This 26-page report follows up on its 2011 publication, The Broken Blue Line, and like its predecessor, cites 100 examples of serious crimes committed by police officers. Combined with other data, it sketches a picture that suggests “a pattern of criminal behaviour that stretches from sexual violence, to drunken murders, to planning and committing violent armed robberies” within the South African Police Service (SAPS).

It acknowledges that the police themselves have been “taking the lead” in fighting this scourge, but finds its efforts to have been insufficient. It warns that fighting crime is unlikely to succeed while those doing the fighting may have been infiltrated by, or themselves be, criminals. In addition, low conviction rates show that prosecutions of such cases will remain unsatisfactory while cops are expected to investigate their own. It also observes that the public distrusts and fears the police, and has good reason to do so.

In response, lieutenant general Solomon Makgale, the SAPS’s head of “corporate” communications (as if it’s some sort of private company), took to the media to roundly reject the report. In disputing it, he went much too far, however. He strayed from mere disagreement to personal attacks and outright dishonesty.

We are told that some 100 cases were selected from media reports and analysed,” Makgale wrote. “On that basis, a conclusion was reached that every police officer you come across is likely to rape, murder or rob you.

We believe their research methodology is very dodgy and they are drawing very wrong conclusions out of newspaper reports,” he told reporters, saying that the police were not invited to assist with the report. “We have absolutely no problem whatsoever with working with any institution that wants to come do research.”

Like his boss, he called the report “malicious”, and added: “Amongst the 200,000 officers, there are many whose character is above reproach.”

As it turns out, however, the report does not dispute this last point, and the rest is untrue.

The claim that the SAPS was excluded is highly doubtful. According to Mienke Mari Steytler, the IRR’s head of media and public affairs, the researchers contacted national police commissioner Riah Phiyega’s office as long ago as September 2014. The report notes that an approach in November 2014 yielded no cooperation either. This suggests that the SAPS does have a problem working with an institution that wants to come and do research.

We used the best information that was available,” says Steytler. “We’d have loved to have had better access to the SAPS’s own data on the subject.”

The report presents a wealth of anecdotal evidence of serious crimes involving the police, in the form of 100 newspaper reports. However, the purpose of these anecdotes is not to draw quantitative conclusions about police involvement in crime. They merely indicate what sort of crimes they were. Nowhere does the report suggest that “every police officer” is a threat to the public.

That there are many good cops in the SAPS is, of course, true. Many are underpaid and overworked, and deserve our thanks. As Makgale points out, many of them “demonstrate professionalism [and serve] with overwhelming humanity.”

The report does not dispute this. In fact, it expected this line of defence: “We … anticipate that the police may seek to distract attention from the substance of this report by describing it as an attack on hard-working officers who risk their lives to fight crime. The complete opposite is of course true as we are trying to empower those officers by freeing them from the crippling disadvantage that attaches to working in an environment infiltrated by criminal syndicates.”

To get an idea of numbers, researchers drew from the most recent annual reports of both the SAPS and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID).

The IPID reported handling over 9,000 cases, of which just over 5,000 were completed. Of these, 1,470 were referred to the National Prosecuting Authority for criminal prosecution, although only 83 convictions were obtained as a result. Another 135 led to disciplinary action, according to the IPID.

The SAPS data reports the dismissal of 503 officers out of 5,578 who faced disciplinary action, so the true numbers appear to be considerably higher than the IPID statistics show. This, the IRR report noted, was “a very good thing”, but “insufficient to stop police criminality”.

The IRR also included data from the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), an independent and internationally recognised NGO. It was formed in 1995 by anti-Apartheid organisations the Black Sash, the Human Rights Committee (not to be confused with the United Nations Human Rights Committee or the South African Human Rights Commission), and the late, lamented Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA). The PMG was created in the wake of South Africa’s liberation, to give effect to its new constitutional commitment to transparency and public participation in government.

Its data, derived from parliamentary committee hearings, correspond with an internal SAPS audit which was made public in July 2013 by the then police minister Nathi Mthethwa (not to be confused with his successor, Nkosinathi ‘Nathi’ Nhleko). It found that 1,448 convicted criminals were actively serving in the police at the time. Of those, the PMG reported, 80% had been up for serious offences, including assault, attempted rape, rape, attempted murder and murder. Constables made up only 9% of the cases, and sergeants 18%. Half were warrant officers, and as many as 23% were officers of lieutenant rank or higher, including 21 colonels, 10 brigadiers, and one major general.

Mthethwa instructed Phiyega to remedy this situation within three months. At the time, the South Africa Policing Union (SAPU) said “there is no leadership and management in the police”. It demanded the resignation of both Mthethwa and Phiyega.

Nine months later, in April 2014, it was reported that 1,017 officers were being dismissed over their criminal records. However, Makgale offers a lower number, saying that “777 police officers have been found guilty of various crimes and subsequently dismissed during the past 18 months.”

Which is it, 503 in a year, 777 in 18 months, or 1,017 all at once? Such inconsistent data indicates negligence, incompetence or dishonesty. Even had the numbers checked out, Makgale cannot claim that the IRR report rests solely on the anecdotal evidence contained in newspaper reports.

The report’s sample of 100 cases includes 32 murders, 22 armed robberies, 26 rapes, with the remainder being other serious crimes like torture and burglary. It concedes that this sample includes allegations and not only convictions, but points out that a similar exercise involving the London Metropolitan Police did not uncover any cases of crimes as serious as armed robbery and rape.

It also grants that this sample may include crimes committed by “cloned” officers – criminals who don police uniforms, carry police equipment, and drive police cars. However, it questions how this can occur without the complicity of someone on the inside, and implies that the SAPS has been infiltrated by criminal syndicates.

When the report was presented to Phiyega, according to Steytler, she took it personally and objected to the use of her photograph on the cover. She protested that it was unjust to link her face to criminality in the police. Moreover, the report only served to make people more afraid, she claimed.

Makgale repeated this paranoia: “Close reading of some of the commentary in the report would lead you to believe that [the commissioner] personally introduced criminality in policing.”

Touchiness is not uncommon when someone in government faces criticism, but as an official response, it is destructive. It rejects outright that the media or independent watchdogs might raise valid concerns that need to be addressed.

On “a close reading”, the report is very specific about the commissioner: “We suspect that the extent of criminality within the police is mainly indicative of weak command and control structures as well as a breakdown of the overall chain of command. The choice of Riah Phiyega as police commissioner was inappropriate and is unlikely to instil any confidence in the chain of command.

This in turn raises the question of the extent to which political decision-making plays a role in weakening policing and hence allowing criminality to thrive. The political leadership of the police has a great deal to answer for here and if blame must be assigned it rests primarily with the cabinet and the police minister. The police should ideally be led by a career officer with an established track record in policing.”

This is consistent with SAPU’s published position. According to Steytler, the union’s president, Mpho Kwinika, supported the IRR report during an interview with Tim Modise on PowerFM, and said the police need to up their game.

None of this implies that Phiyega personally introduced crime, that she is implicated, or even that she tolerates it. It is a professional criticism, but not a personal attack on the police commissioner.

Makgale, however, seems sure something nefarious is afoot: “Blistering, condescending side commentary loaded with racial and sexist undertones from AfriForum was reserved for the National Commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, personally attacking her integrity.”

This statement is not true, but it is revealing. AfriForum sponsored the report, which in NGO research circles is no less common than advertising in magazines or newspapers. While it is conceivable that a sponsor can influence a report, like an advertiser might influence news reporting, Steytler claims AfriForum did not even see the report until the day before its public launch. She points out that the IRR (formerly known as the South African Instituted for Race Relations, or SAIRR) was founded in 1929. It has an 86-year reputation to uphold, and has always had a strict policy against sponsors intervening in research or editorial matters, she says.

Even if the IRR were biased by the financial support of AfriForum, it still wouldn’t explain the data provided by its sources: independent reporters, the PMG, the IPID and the SAPS. If the IRR is to be accused of racism, as Makgale does, then presumably that is true for these sources, SAPU, and even Nathi Mthethwa himself.

Makgale has no grounds to claim that AfriForum’s views were included in the report, or influenced its conclusions in any way. However, being unable to attack the IRR directly, its sponsor made an expedient target.

So it turns out that it is not the IRR, but Makgale who is attacking someone’s integrity without any evidence. Given his demonstrated dishonesty about the research basis of the report’s conclusions, I’m inclined to side with the IRR.

The SAPS response should have been polite disagreement, an acknowledgement that criminality in the ranks of the police remains a challenge, and an outline of what is being done about it. If Phiyega or Makgale felt there were problems with the report, the professional response would have been to point this out dispassionately, instead of taking it personally, shooting the messenger, and implying it was an insult to all good cops.

If they had recommitted themselves to the fight against police criminality, Phiyega and Makgale might have looked brave in the face of criticism, confident in the exercise of leadership, and accountable to the people they are sworn to protect and serve. The top brass is helpless against police criminality, or worse, has no intention of doing anything about it.

This was the least reassuring response the people of South Africa, who would like to be able to trust their police officers, could have received. It is even more disturbing than the content of the report itself.

Stay afraid, citizens. DM

Full disclosure: Ivo Vegter has written paid features for Africa in Fact, which is a publication of Good Governance Africa (GGA), a research and advocacy organisation that works to improve government performance on the continent. GGA was affiliated with the IRR until September 2013.



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