Book review – A horror anatomy of police corruption

2013-07-28 14:00

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This is a book police commissioner Riah Phiyega needs to read, because the only thing worse than the culture of crime and corruption eating into the SA Police Service (SAPS) is official denial of the problem.

Anyone who bothers to read a newspaper from week to week doesn’t buy any of the excuses any more, and this book is a timely reminder why.

Criminologist Liza Grobler takes a comprehensive look at criminal and corrupt cops, and how they are formed. She starts off with a look at cops in New York, London and Sydney – cities in which there’s a general acknowledgement that about 1% of cops are corrupt.

She explains how, because of this understanding, wide-ranging programmes are in place in these cities to try to curb police corruption.

A good example is New York, where cops are given intensive ethical training and are kept in line with, among other things, random integrity tests no cop ever knows is coming and only finds out about if he or she fails. A pass goes on record, allowing cops of good character to progress.

There’s nothing of the sort in South Africa. Ours is a service in every kind of disarray, muddled by politicians who have no place in what should be a paramilitary organisation. But, as Grobler puts it, “a fish rots from the head”.

She unpacks every possible kind of crooked South African cop, and it’s a long list. Some are drug users or dealers themselves, easily manipulated after being co-opted as members of gangs. Others are little more than criminals in uniform. They rob businesses, commit fraud, rape suspects in custody and go as far as murder. But cop crime includes “noble corruption”, where crime scenes have been tampered with to provide false evidence.

Grobler also covers murky relationships with informers, stealing and destroying dockets, police brutality and a significant economy of accepting and soliciting bribes.

The cost of all this is staggering. Just in financial terms alone, mounting ill discipline and crime in the service has meant that since 2006, the cost of paying for civil cases against the SAPS quadrupled from R5.3 billion to R20.5 billion in 2011/12. The real cost is greater: criminals are empowered and hold the population and its economy to ransom.

Grobler’s research makes it clear it doesn’t really matter how many cops are crooked, because it only takes a few bad apples at every station to undo the work of good cops. But the book hedges wildly on how many cops may actually be criminals.

On one page, it seems it’s just a small fraction, on another you get the impression the majority are tainted. The reason is, as Grobler says, it is “difficult to establish the extent of the corruption and criminality in the SAPS because statistics gathered on it cannot be released”.

She trawls through media reports, the police data that is available, court records, numerous interviews with police officers (some while serving time) and many experts to paint her unhappy picture.

It begins with poor recruitment strategies and inadequate training, and is made worse by underpaid rookie cops being mentored by corrupt officers. Education is no longer paid for by the service; promotions and pay increases appear to have little to do with merit and performance, and are subject to a poorly implemented system of affirmative action; and the overwhelming culture of drinking and using drugs doesn’t help.

Despite the challenge fixing the SAPS presents, Grobler’s recommendations, if implemented, would restore the public’s faith in the men and women in blue.

Continuing to deny the problems, from Marikana to Nathi Mthethwa’s wall, helps no one but criminals. That said, our cops are still the best we have. Without them, the country would descend into chaos in a matter of days.

All the same, they can do a whole lot better.

Crossing the line: When cops become criminals

Jacana; 400 pages


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