Legitimacy crisis haunts SAPS

One of the biggest challenges facing the South African Police Service is the “widely held perception” among its own staff and the public that many SAPS members and leaders are corrupt, according to a new study by the Institute for Security Studies.

“Protector or predator?” is the title of the study by Gareth Newham, the head of the crime and justice programme at the ISS, and senior researcher Andrew Faull.

They found that, although the police had come a long way since 1995, the legitimacy of the SAPS in many communities was still in doubt. There was evidence that corruption was widespread and systemic, they said.

“This is not to say that — a majority of police officials engage in corruption. However, the prevalence of the problem is such that it substantially hinders the extent to which the SAPS is able to achieve its constitutional objectives and build public trust,” the report said, adding that graft was “an occupational hazard of policing agencies worldwide”.

Police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said that the SAPS was getting on top of corruption. “We have 1 000 police officers incarcerated for corruption and other serious crimes like murder and rape. In Gauteng alone we arrested 150 police officers in a six-month period,” said Naidoo.

“None of us wants to be seen or branded as corrupt. We have 200 000 personnel and only a few are bringing us into disrepute. We want to get rid of the perception that all officers are corrupt.”

The study looked at how police corruption had changed over time in the United States. The Mollen Commission of Inquiry into corruption in the New York City police department in 1994 revealed that groups of police officers spent considerable time planning and aggressively looking for situations that could be exploited for financial gain. Yet a report of 20 years earlier showed that graft was pervasive but relatively petty in nature.

In 1999 the Los Angeles police department experienced one of its biggest corruption scandals when an anti-gang unit was accused of routinely fabricating evidence, stealing cocaine, intimidating witnesses and planting guns on unarmed suspects. Up to 4 000 cases were thought to have been tainted by the unit. “Corruption had become systemic — because those concerned had agreed to a code of silence and supervisors had turned a blind eye,” the study found.

Newham and Faull recommended that in South Africa police integrity had to “start from the top”.

“All commanders should consistently highlight, and in their behaviour reflect, the core values of the SAPS, including integrity, respect for the law [and] service excellence and they must regularly articulate what they expect from those under their command.”

To fight corruption a positive police culture should be promoted that supported honesty, hard work and dedication to professional values, the writers urged. The police should also know there were strong systems in place to hold them accountable if they abused their powers.

The report said that the public should be encouraged to recognise good police work by sending messages to an address set up to encourage police and mobilise community support.

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