Police misconduct in the Northern Cape – the shocking figures

As reported elsewhere, the death of Tyre Nichols has reopened the controversy about police brutality in the United States. But what’s the situation at home?

A reasonably reliable account of police misconduct –including instances of police brutality – appears in the annual reports of the Independence Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). All complaints about police misconduct – the SAPS as well as metro police — are meant to be reported to IPID, which then takes further action.

Among others, the IPID records and investigates cases of deaths in police custody; deaths as a result of police action; the discharge of firearms by police officers; rapes by police officers, whether on or off duty; rapes of people while in police custody; torture or assault by police officers; corruption; and other criminal offences. It then refers some cases to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and others to the police for discplinary action.

The IPID figures

Its most recent annual report covers the period 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. In this year, a total of 5 295 cases were registered with the IPID. These included 3 407 cases of assault, 744 cases related to the discharge of firearms, 410 cases of deaths as a result of police action, 223 cases of deaths in police custody, and 192 cases of torture. Of these, 327 occurred in the Northern Cape. The Northern Cape breakdown was as follows:

Deaths in police custody: 7; deaths as a result of police action: 9; discharge of firearms: 31; rape by police officials: 6; rape in police custody: 1; torture: nil; assault: 262; corruption: 2; other criminal matters: 6.

The figures for the Northern Cape were 6 percent higher than the year before. Of these 327 cases, 249 were referred to the NPA for decisions on whether or not to prosecute. Of these, 149 responses were outstanding. The NPA declined to prosecute in 97 cases, and to prosecute in three. Only one conviction was recorded.

IPID also recommended that disciplinary steps be taken against 45 police officers. Of those, 22 were convicted, and various penalties were imposed.

The public response

Clearly, the picture painted by these figures – among others of police brutality in the form of torture and assault – is totally unacceptable. How has the South African public responded?

In September last year, following the release of the last IPID annual report, Reagen Allen, MEC for police oversight and community safety in the Western Cape, declared that the figures for the province were ‘horrific, a disgrace, and an indictment of the SAPS’.

In a statement, he said it was a ‘complete travesty’ that members of the very service which should be protecting citizens and upholding the law should commit these sorts of crimes. ‘It’s enough that so many of our residents have to deal with criminals. This is part of the reason why so many residents have lost faith and trust in the SAPS.’

A culture of police brutality

Besides this, though, comments have been muted. A relevant article appears on SaferSpaces, a website developed by the Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention Programme, created with German development aid to South Africa. Titled ‘Police brutality in South Africa’, the authors are Philisiwe Hadebe and Nirmala Gopal, criminology researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Writing in 2019, they said South Africa was experiencing an influx of cases of police brutality. More than 5 500 cases of police criminal offences were reported every year. Of those, more than 3500 were cases of police brutality (torture and assault), averaging 65% of all offences over the previous four years. This meant that, after 24 years of democracy, South Africa was still struggling to police itself in a democratic manner.

Given an oversight body in the form of IPID, which was meant to ensure police accountability, high rates of prosecutions and convictions could be expected. But this was not the case – from 2014/15 to 2017/18, only 1.9% of police officers involved in reported incidents were convicted, at a rate of less than 2.5% per year.

Shockingly, there was a zero conviction rate for torture, while assault was the predominant crime that ended in convictions. Over the same four-year period, the NPA declined to prosecute in more than 36% of cases.

They went on to say: ‘These statistics indicate that South Africa has not only inherited a culture of police brutality as a legacy from the past, but also the acceptance of such criminal behaviour, reflected in the failure to hold police accountable for acts of brutality.’

A study conducted by themselves involving in-depth interviews with ten KZN-IPID investigating officers had revealed that KZN citizens experienced strangulation, suffocation, and tubing during police raids and interrogations.

In conclusion, they said South Africa was far from reaching its ideal of a society free of crime and violence, as its policing style ‘continues to resemble that of the apartheid regime’.

The impact on public trust

What are the implications?  Among others, public trust in the police – a key factor in a healthy democratic society – is declining. In an article on the academic website The Conversation, dated 28 March 2022, two researchers, Benjamin Roberts and Steven Gordon, report on the results of authoritative surveys of public trust in the police conducted since the late 1990s.

According to them, the data shows that public trust in the police has been low throughout most of the democratic period, never breaching the 50% mark. A high point of 47% was reached in 1998, declining to an all-time low of 27% in 2021.

If left unchecked, they write, low and diminishing confidence in the police will continue to undermine police legitimacy in South Africa.

What can be done?

So what can be done? Recent recommendations put forward by the Institute of Security Studies, they write, could improve public attitudes towards the police.

These include dispensing with an excessively hierarchical police culture, promoting competent and ethical police leadership, and strengthening other parts of the overall system of police governance.

A non-militaristic policing ethos is also vital. This should be framed around a service culture and the use of minimal force. It also requires police to put more measures in place to monitor and control the use of force, and to promote a culture of police accountability.

TOVERVIEW COMMENTS: These levels of police brutality and other forms of misconduct are completely unacceptable, in our town, our province and the rest of the country. The same goes for the NPA. This won’t change unless we register our active protest. At the very least, every instance of police conduct must be reported, despite any threats or other forms of intimidation. We must also convey our views to our elected representatives. Ultimately, policing won’t improve substantially unless citizens act, and governance becomes more accountable at every level.

Featured image: Polive Commemoration Day, Pretoria, 2015. Picture: GCIS.

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