What cops don’t want to tell

2014-07-03 00:00

THE police could be attacked if they make public how many officers are based at stations throughout the province.

The Witness, through a Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) application, requested from the police a breakdown of the personnel numbers based at police stations throughout the province.

But police have thrown a veil of secrecy around the release of police deployment numbers on claims it could endanger the public, lead to police stations being attacked and would expose the “soft spots” in South Africa’s internal security machinery.

Civil rights groups and opposition parties have called the denial evidence of South Africa being a secretive state and have supported The Witness in its attempt to access the information.

The request made on June 2, which asked the police for the number of deployed staff at all police stations in the province to be broken down to rank, was refused in full. The Witness is to appeal the decision.

But the refusal is despite the SAPS having already released deployment numbers at 149 police stations throughout the City of Cape Town during the controversial Khayelitsha Commission.

According to commission insiders, the numbers were released “in the spirit of co-operation”.

But Colonel Amelda Crooks, the SAPS’s deputy information officer, said in a written response to The Witness that the police could not release the report as “it could be used to plan and to attack certain police stations”.

“[Conceding to the PAIA application] could reasonably be expected to endanger the lives and physical safety of police officials … and the public. Certain stations may be targeted by offenders or … property or business in such areas.”

Her response also said it “will assist culprits to identify weaknesses of the service as far as its personnel strength, loopholes and physical vulnerabilities”, and that “such areas are very likely to become soft spots or targets”.

The reply said “the service uses certain methods, techniques and procedures” that included the allocation of members to certain police stations, in the “prevention, detection, curtailment and investigation of contravention of the law and the prosecution of offences”.

Crooks said they could not even release parts of the request as it would “be meaningless and misleading”.

Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) director Phenyo Butale called the refusal wrong, adding that “secrecy is corrosive”.

“People have the right to know the capacity of the police. To not release statistics on the basis that it could give criminal elements the upper hand is wrong,” said Butale.

“Most governments are leaning towards secrecy. Normally the state will flash the security card, but by international standards you need to clearly define what national security is. The FXI would support any action to have these types of figures released.”

Murray Hunter, Right2Know’s spokesperson and convener on secrecy, said the public absolutely has a right to know about how police resources are being used and whether they are being used effectively.

“It is difficult from the outside to know how great the threat is that the SAPS refers to, but it is not a given that keeping information secret is better for security. The commission on policing in Khayelitsha showed that greater transparency led to better public oversight, which is likely to make policing better and communities safer.”

Mary de Haas, who runs the KZN Violence Monitor, said the refusal is a sign of growing secrecy and a lack of accountability in government.

“This should be publicly available information. There is no excuse. Anyone seriously wanting to use the information for nefarious purposes could easily find out from different stations,” said De Haas.

De Haas said the deployment numbers are available to various Community Police Forums and the failure to release it publicly has “ominous implications for democracy”.

Democratic Alliance spokesperson on police Diane Kohler-Barnard criticised the police for using census data from 2001 in order to allocate officers to stations countrywide.

“This veil of secrecy is to protect jobs. Every station I visit is understaffed,” said Kohler-Barnard.

What is the Khayelitsha Commission?

The Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry was set up by the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille to investigate complaints of serious police inefficiency in the sprawling Cape Town township.

Although it was proclaimed in August 2012 by Zille’s office on the strength of provincial legislation, the commission only began earlier this year after facing numerous court challenges by the Ministry of Police.

On August 24, 2012, the commission was proclaimed and given until February 2013 to wrap up its investigation. But by November the commission — and its power to subpoena police officials — was challenged by then minister of police Nathi Mthethwa.

Mthethwa lost the challenge in the Western Cape high court in January 2013 and then again in the Constitutional Court in August 2013.

The commission began in January 2014 and has been given until the end of August to complete its inquiry.

Part of the inquiry led to the release of police resource numbers of police personnel at various stations in the Western Cape from the most resourced to least resourced based on 2013 figures. The release revealed that on average there were 283 police per 100 000 people in the Western Cape. It also found that the more affluent areas were better resourced than poorer, predominantly black neighbourhoods.

Our PAIA questions

1. Records that evidence the numbers of deployed staff at all police stations in KwaZulu-Natal as of May 1, 2014, or the most recent available date;

2. Records that evidence the break down of rank for all deployed staff at all police stations in KwaZulu-Natal as of May 1, 2014, or the most recent available date;

3. Records that evidence the existing vacancies at all police stations in KwaZulu-Natal as of May 1, 2014, or the most recent available date;

4. The Resource Allocation Guide or the Theoretical Human Resource Requirement for all police stations in KwaZulu-Natal as of May 1, 2014, or the most recent available date; and

5. Records that evidence the estimated population numbers for each police station policing area in KwaZulu-Natal as of May 1, 2014, or the most relevant date.

What do you think? Should this information be made public? Send us your views to letters@witness.co.za. Do you know the deployment numbers at your local station? Contact Jonathan at 073 227 6075 or

e-mail jonathan.erasmus@witness.co.za.

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