M&G: Police watchdog ‘toothless’


Police watchdog ‘toothless’
Adriaan Basson | Johannesburg, South Africa

It is supposed to police South Africa’s cops, but the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is severely understaffed, underpowered and mostly ignored by the men and women in blue.

Research released this week by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) suggests that the ICD is essentially a toothless body whose recommendations are shrugged off by the South African Police Service.

Commissioned by the ICD to establish compliance with its recommendations by the police service, the ISS scrutinised 573 dockets of complaints against police officers drawn from all nine provinces. The alleged offences included deaths in police custody, criminal acts by police officers and misconduct.

The ISS found that only in 58% of cases did the police comply with the ICD’s recommendations of disciplinary or criminal steps against members. In 25% of cases (143 investigations) the police ignored what the ICD found and did not reply to the directorate’s letters.

Non-compliance by the SAPS is possible because of a lack of legislative enforcement powers for the ICD. The directorate was established in 1993 when the interim constitution made provision for an “independent mechanism under civilian control with the object of ensuring that complaints in respect of offences and misconduct allegedly committed by members of the [police service] are investigated in an effective and efficient manner”.

The 1996 Constitution only briefly refers to the ICD, while the South African Police Service Act only empowers the ICD to investigate alleged offences by police members and make recommendations to the police commissioner concerned.

Relationship with SAPS

The ISS identified six problem areas that have to be overcome for the ICD to be an efficient investigating body:

Although the relationship between the ICD and police management at the top levels is good there is distrust between ICD and SAPS members at middle and lower levels. “There is evidence of poor personal relationships in some areas, mutual distrust, perceptions of an attitude of superiority by the police towards the ICD and a perceived reluctance by some police managers to act against members, notwithstanding ICD recommendations,” the report reads.

Police officers and ICD staff interviewed identified as problematic the fact that both bodies report to the same minister — Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula. This is perceived as a conflict of interest that impacts negatively on the independence and credibility of the ICD.

The lack of legal authority that compels the SAPS to report back on ICD recommendations. Currently the ICD can only make recommendations to the police regarding punitive steps.

The “general practice” of the police is not to respond to written communication from the ICD or to respond “irregularly”.

The absence of a prescribed coordinating mechanism between the ICD and the SAPS, which hampers the liaison between the two organisations. “In practice this has led to situations where there is either no contact or contact only via correspondence.”

The ICD is “frustrated with the police practice to first wait for the conclusion of a criminal trial before they consider the possibility of departmental steps against an accused member”.

The ISS has found that essential information is often missing from ICD case files. This happens to the extent that in some investigations researchers could not determine the names, gender or race of alleged perpetrators or complainants.

In 138 (24%) of the cases investigated because of “missing information” or information “left out” the ISS could not establish whether the SAPS did or did not comply with the ICD’s recommendations.

Severely understaffed
The ISS also finds that the ICD is severely understaffed, with only 247 (46%) of its positions filled. Of the 247 staffers only 100 are investigators who are actively involved in groundwork. That means one investigator per 1 630 police officers.

“The ICD is severely understaffed, especially when considering the increasing numbers of SAPS members. In addition, the investigators who fulfil the core mandate of the ICD need increased administrative support to effectively carry out their duties.”

Their efficiency is also restricted by a lack of vehicles to attend crime scenes and court hearings.

It emerged at the ISS discussion this week that the ICD was requested by government to open an additional 43 satellite offices, but only had money for two. “How can we be effective if we don’t have the resources?” asked one ICD staffer.

The ISS suggests a separate act, dealing specifically with the ICD, its powers and the ability to compel the police service to report back on what it has done with the directorate’s recommendations.

It is further recommended that the ICD and the SAPS report to different ministers or that a special parliamentary oversight committee be established to deal with ICD matters.

The ISS also argues for regular inspections by the ICD at police offices to monitor the outcome and impact of ICD investigations, for greater clarity on the referral of investigations to and from the police and for in-service training of police officers to prevent them from transgressing and that SAPS disciplinary hearings be attended by external police members who are not attached to the office of the accused officer.