Police must never be allowed to act with impunity
The police are set to become a law unto themselves if proposals outlined to parliament by police minister Bheki Cele are not challenged.
These draft proposals allow police commanders to overrule the recommendations made by the watchdog Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid).
The directorate’s mandate is to be “an effective, independent and impartial investigating and oversight body that is committed to justice and acting in the public interest, while maintaining the highest standards of integrity and excellence”.
It is charged with ensuring oversight of the SA Police Service (SAPS) and conducting independent and impartial investigations of criminal offences allegedly committed by police and making appropriate recommendations.
However, Ipid has proven almost as toothless as its predecessor, the Independent Complaints Directorate.
This is partly because Ipid struggles under a heavy — and growing — workload and is under-resourced in terms of staff and funds.
It is also because the police can largely get away with ignoring Ipid.
Ipid officials complain that the SAPS often ignores their findings against officers implicated in crimes such as torture, murder, rape and corruption.
Disciplinary steps against police officers are the exception rather than the norm and when hearings do take place, they occur behind closed doors and rarely result in sanctions.
According to researchers, an astonishing 95% of complaints end with no action being taken against the officers implicated.
The new “Terms of Reference” proposal would make this situation still worse, allowing the police virtual impunity with SAPS commanders given the power to can Ipid findings without embarking on any disciplinary process.
This comes against the backdrop of a spike in complaints about police misconduct with cases up 9% from 5,640 to 6,122 in the last financial year.
This includes 646 complaints about the conduct of police in the Eastern Cape.
Most of the cases Ipid deals with relate to allegations of police brutality, including killings, torture, shootings and assaults.
When SA became a democracy, the government was at pains to demilitarise the police and take steps to change the culture of human rights abuse that had flourished under apartheid.
Instead, a police force centred on community service was envisaged.
Regrettably, this vision has been steadily eroded, with successive ministers assuming an ever more belligerent tone to distract the public from noticing that their strategies to combat crime were faltering.
There is excellent reason for police actions to be subject to independent scrutiny, including that crime fighting requires the co-operation of the community.
It is now up to parliament to intervene to ensure the police are held accountable and operate within the law they are supposed to uphold.
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