Finally, some real police intelligence

2011-04-02 14:00

Women’s

organisations don’t often applaud the police, but the re-establishment of the

specialised Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) Unit

deserves congratulations.

When former police commissioner Jackie Selebi

scrapped the FCS units in 2006 he destroyed 20 years’ worth of skills and

experience, and also flew in the face of policing trends globally.

“Police officials and police units,” ­Selebi opined at the time,

“cannot operate in cocoons of expertise, only sharing their skills when

available and time ­permits.”

Instead, these specialised units were taken from

their centralised offices and despatched to local police stations “where they

are most needed ... close to the homes of the victims, easily accessible,

readily available”.

On the surface this sounded reasonable enough, but on another level

the restructuring was the culmination of a far more aggressive process to

dismantle specialised units in the police generally.

On Friday all 176 FCS units were reinstated nationally in

accordance with a parliamentary promise made last year by Police Minister Nathi

Mthethwa.

The minister gave the police a year to get their house in order, to

employ and train staff and to find space to house the units.

Each unit will serve a cluster of between six to eight stations and

focus primarily on crimes against children, sexual offences committed against

adults as well as cases of domestic violence involving assault with intent to

cause grievous bodily harm or attempted murder.

The units will also include

forensic social workers able to prepare reports for court

Specialised units have long caused ­envy among some sections of the

police because they are better resourced than the general detective

services.

Still, some officers were dismissive of the notion that any

investigation required specialised skills and ­considered those attached to

specialised units as having an undeserved sense of superiority.

So dismantling

them was intended to strip them of their resources and bring them down to size.

The consequences were devastating.

Services were not brought closer

to communities. While some areas previously not served by the FCS units did

enjoy greater access to their specialised skills, other areas lost services. And

the quality of services declined.

Local police stations often did not have space for the relocated

detectives or facilities suitable for victims. Faced with conducting interviews

in communal offices where victims could be overheard by others, some detectives

resorted to interviewing and working from the privacy of their cars. Others had

no such option ­because their cars were taken and pooled for general use.

Obtaining a statement would take two or three days while detectives

waited for cars to become available. Poorer victims often lost access to

counselling services because detectives could not as readily transport them to

social workers, including when required for court assessments.

FCS detectives’ budgets were also placed under the control of

station commanders who did not always have a sense of their needs and failed to

budget accordingly.

This had a serious impact on the collection and storage of

medico-legal evidence (including DNA) in sexual assault evidence crime

kits.

When some ­stations ran out of crime kits and had no budget to buy

new ones, detectives spent hours driving from ­station to station trying to get

kits. Sometimes evidence from a previous victim was ­simply thrown away and the

crime kits re-used.

Most chilling of all was that the ­restructuring allowed serial

rapists to proliferate.

Previously detectives worked across a number of stations

and were based at one centralised office, which permitted ample opportunity to

compare cases and identify rapes demonstrating a similar modus operandi.

Teams could be put together to focus intensively on these matters.

This was made extremely difficult after officers were split up and based at

individual ­stations.

One can only guess how many women fell victim to

unnecessary delays or failure to identify serial rapists

Overall, adult women unquestionably bore the brunt of this

disarray. Detectives interviewed by gender-justice body Tshwaranang on the

restructuring said they were forced to prioritise children’s matters (not

unsurprisingly, given these units’ origins in the Child Protection Unit) and had

largely to abandon adult rape survivors to the inexpert fumblings of general

detectives.

Research by Tshwaranang, the Medical Research Council and the

Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation compared the performance of

general detectives with that of FCS detectives in rape cases.

Where general

detectives only made arrests in 33% of cases, FCS detectives made arrests in

52%. Their cases were also two-and-a-half times more likely to go to trial.

Think what these statistics mean for the quality of justice meted out to adults

in the last few years.

Re-establishing the units is only the beginning. Those three years

in a policing wilderness led to the loss of a number of very experienced,

dedicated and highly competent detectives and it will take years to regain that

experience.

What will also take time to rebuild is that crucial network of

relationships between NGOs, social workers, doctors and nurses, teachers and

prosecutors that is so essential to the provision of comprehensive and

integrated services.

Only Police Commissioner Mzwandile Petros of Gauteng has taken

steps to ­ensure that intersectoral collaboration is resuscitated effectively.

In all other provinces police management appears to have left this to luck and

good will.

Finally, the officers in the Client Service Centre – the victims’

first point of contact – remain the weak link in policing services.

Frequently

unable to take statements of an acceptable quality and unfamiliar with the law,

they have also not been adequately trained.

Information from the SAPS suggested

a scant 2?491 of the uniform branch of the SAPS (which numbers more than

100 00) have been trained in the Sexual Offences Act since its promulgation in

2007.

The reintroduction of the FCS units is the SAPS’ most intelligent

response in years to the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa.

Will they

stop at this or will they also ensure an effective, comprehensive policing

response to violence inflicted upon women and children?

» Vetten is the executive director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre


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