Police brutality: No silver bullet for costly concerns

In September 2010, Jacoline Maart arrived home from a church service to discover that her teenage son was drinking alcohol nearby with a group of young men. He became aggressive when she approached him.

Distressed by her son's behaviour, Maart went to the police station. A group of police reservists accompanied her to the scene. A confrontation ensued and the teenager allegedly drew a knife before fleeing the scene.

He was cornered in a nearby yard. A reservist shot him dead, at close range, in the back of the head.

Last week, the Eastern Cape High Court awarded Maart a R1.2-million damages claim against the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa.

It is the latest in a series of judgments against the police ministry for incidents where officers have either assaulted suspects or detained them unlawfully, at a time when "police brutality" is an international buzzword and often accompanies a description of South African law enforcers.

Police brutality is a short-hand term for excessive force used by the police against civilians. In post-democracy South Africa, there has been no shortage of studies commissioned and papers written on the subject.

Rhetoric of police service
But while research shows that incidents of "police brutality" were actually on the decline in the last year, the rhetoric of the police service used in dealing with these complaints was on trial, along with its officers.

In March this year, the South Gauteng High Court awarded R135 000 in damages to a man who had been unlawfully detained and assaulted in police custody. A day after this judgment, in a separate incident, Mthethwa was ordered to pay R150 000 for the unlawful arrest and detention of another man.

Both incidents occurred in 2010. Since then, the police have incurred R334-million in legal fees as a result of civil claims against the South African Police Service (SAPS).

There were approximately 5 090 civil claims against the SAPS in the 2011/12 financial year at a cost of over R13-million to the state attorney's office.

In the case of "Steven Mothoa versus the Minister of Police", counsel for the state argued that accused persons held in detention should not expect prison to resemble a hotel – a remark Judge AJ Hutton found "distasteful".

Mothoa was arrested and searched publically without a warrant, detained for 22 hours, not given food and water for 14 hours, and never appeared in court.

After the latest reported incident of police brutality, Democratic Alliance spokesperson on police Dianne Kohler Barnard called for a commission of inquiry into police brutality. A video released by eNCA on Friday showed an off-duty police officer assaulting a woman in Smithfield in the Free State.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is investigating the incident.

The video shows the plain clothes officer hitting the woman and kicking her in the head. Police officers at the scene did not arrest the man. eNCA reported that the woman did not lay formal charges.

Barnard said President Jacob Zuma and Mthwethwa could "no longer bury their heads in the sand".

Last week, police were afforded an opportunity to state their case more generally at a seminar on police brutality hosted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). National police commissioner Riah Phiyega was scheduled to represent the police. She cancelled her appearance, leaving Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros with the task of defending the police's reputation.

Phiyega's office could offer no explanation to the Mail & Guardian as to why she did not attend.

Devoted officers needed
Petros was adamant that the police needed devoted officers and said the training of officers was not the solution. He maintained that huge changes in policy occurred since 1994, including a massive recruitment programme that saw the number of officers increase by 70 000 since 2002.

He said police had to deal with an increase in protests and that they were often met by a hostile public. Monitoring agency, Municipal IQ, counted 173 "service delivery" protests in 2012 – a sharp increase from the previous year.

As an example of the pressure this places on police, the words "Marikana" and "illegal" readily rolled from Petros's tongue at the seminar.

"We had 4 000 protesters at Marikana. Not one of them had permission to protest," he said.

A cursory study of the IPID's 2011/12 annual report showed that complaints against the police were reported to the IPID within 48 hours, as required by new legislation. In many instances, the IPID was exceeding its targets in terms of investigating these complaints.

But underneath the numbers, the reports showed that investigators were regularly dealing with examples of extreme violence meted out by police officers, who were regularly overwhelmed by an increase in crowd-management cases, coupled with unreasonable expectations and a hostile public.

Officers killed
Mthethwa's spokesperson Zweli Mnisi told the M&G that 93 police officers were killed last year. He questioned why these stories did not make headlines.

The figures also did not distinguish between lawful and unlawful acts of force by police officers, which made police brutality, as defined by the unlawful use of force, difficult to measure.

The IPID reported 4 923 complaints against the police were received in 2011/12 financial year. Of these, 2 320 were "criminal offences", 720 were deaths, 88 were domestic violence cases, and the remainder, "misconduct cases". The majority was reported in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

A total of 545 of these were reported to the National Directorate for Public Prosecutions. Of the 43 cases where police were convicted, 18 of these cases related to deaths in police custody or deaths as a result of police action.

Deaths in police custody and as a result of police action, reported to the IPID, totalled 923 across the country.

But IPID spokesperson Moses Dlamini at the ISS seminar last week questioned whether the action taken against guilty police officers was sufficient.

'What is a 'suspended dismissal'?'
In one example, an officer in Bisho was accused of attempted murder. He was subjected to an internal disciplinary inquiry, fined R500 and sanctioned with a "suspended dismissal".

"What is a R500 fine for attempted murder? What is suspended dismissal?" Dlamini asked.

Mthethwa told a summit on crime prevention in the Free State on Friday that police should not be a law unto themselves. He consistently condemned instances of brutality and recently indicated that the South African Police Service Act was under review in Parliament.

But his words were cold comfort for people like Maart, who felt the wrath of police brutality not long after former national commissioner Bheki Cele's infamous "shoot to kill" comments.

Calls for changes in the attitudes of police have increased, particularly since the murder of protester Andries Tatane. These include calls for the de-militarisation of the police, as articulated in the national development plan.

But as Dr Johan Burger, senior researcher at the ISS observed last week, de-militarisation of the police by merely changing the ranks of the police, will not change the system.

Changes needed
Apart from the systemic problems in the SAPS, including the breakdown in command and control, Burger said the tone used when addressing police needed to change. He noted that the so-called militarisation of the police in 2010 was not the cause of police brutality.

In fact, incidents of deaths in police custody began to decline around that time. This is because the only "real change" in 2010 was the ranking system within the police.

The first changes in rhetoric can be traced back to 1999, when former minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete declared "war" on crime.

"I will be in your midst all the time, in the rain, at night and where you are. I will not sit in my office like a doll. We are going to deal with criminals in the same way that a bulldog deals with a bull … When we are done, he or she will know they have been dealt with… We are going to give them hell because they are giving our people hell," Tshwete said.

According to Burger, attempts to change to the ranking system of the SAPS in an effort to demilitarise it were, "with all due respect, barking up the wrong tree".

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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