Parliament has 'window of opportunity' to improve police accountability via IPID - experts

Acting executive director of IPID Victor Senna attending a meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Police at Parliament.
Acting executive director of IPID Victor Senna attending a meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Police at Parliament.
Jan Gerber, News24

A small shift in priority at the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) could dramatically increase its impact on police accountability, a recently published policy paper has found.

The police watchdog should concentrate its sparse resources on the most serious crimes committed by police officers, Viewfinder reported.

To do this effectively, it should steer away from performance targets which encourage the "completion" of as many cases as possible. Given IPID's limited resources, the push for quantity undermines the need for targeted and quality investigations.

The paper, authored by policing expert David Bruce and published by the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (Apcof), was prompted by a Viewfinder exposé which was published in October 2019. Viewfinder showed how IPID's provincial offices had taken shortcuts to complete investigations in order to generate performance statistics.

This would have amounted to the obstruction of justice for victims of alleged crimes by police officers, even as IPID reported these cases as statistical successes. Data anomalies and whistle-blower reports published by Viewfinder indicated that the practice was widespread across South Africa and had evolved over many years.

Apcof's paper now calls on IPID management, the police minister and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police (PCP) to heed a series of recommendations. With a new IPID Strategic Plan up for review and approval this year, there may also be a rare window of opportunity for these recommendations to translate into policy reforms.

Yet, it remains to be seen whether these three institutions will adopt the experts' road map. In response to queries about Apcof's recommendations, IPID acting executive director Victor Senna agreed "that our investigations must have an impact on police conduct".

The PCP's content adviser Irvin Kinnes responded that the issue is due for discussion at a committee meeting on Wednesday.

Police Minister Bheki Cele did not respond to queries.

The committee meeting on Wednesday represents the latest development in Parliament's commitment to "get to the bottom of the matter" and to make "appropriate recommendations".

High levels of impunity in police is a 'national security threat'

If Apcof's recommendations are implemented, and their intended impact is achieved, it will better protect South Africans from the worst abuses by the police.

Gareth Newham, the head of the Institute for Security Studies' Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, recently told Viewfinder that the high levels of impunity in the police constitutes a "national security threat" not only to the public, but to the government itself.

"Growing levels of police misconduct and criminality contribute to deteriorating levels of trust, not only in the police, but in the government as a whole," he said.

"The connection between people's trust in the police and their trust in the government has been internationally recognised for some time now. This situation opens up space for non-state actors to challenge the authority of the state. These can include transnational organised crime syndicates and local gangs."

Annually IPID is tasked with investigating thousands of criminal complaints against police officers. Many of these complaints allege violent crimes: torture, murders, indiscriminate shootings and rapes. With nearly 12 000 cases, IPID had to contend with its largest workload yet during the most recent financial year.

Such cases rarely progress to outcomes in court or disciplinary hearings.

After Viewfinder published its report in October, numerous people reached out and alerted it to supposedly unresolved criminal cases against police officers.

Viewfinder is now investigating the case of a teenage boy who was allegedly murdered by a police officer. For years the boy's mother has tried to navigate the criminal justice system alone in an attempt to see justice done.

The agencies involved – including IPID – have snubbed her or deflected blame for the lack of progress in the case (even though it was "completed" by IPID and reported as a statistical success within days of its registration).

Her experience demonstrates that police impunity in South Africa is a complex problem which depends on a number of agencies and factors external to IPID. Yet, Apcof recommends that IPID should be "self-critical in tackling the challenges that it faces rather than assigning the blame for shortcomings exclusively to other parties".

IPID management has previously acknowledged that its investigators cannot cope. By its own admission, IPID does not have the resources to properly investigate all the cases in its workload. This is partly because IPID is badly underfunded.

In his response to Viewfinder, Senna called for "any support that will assist us to lobby for additional resources" in the face of "increasing workloads and (reduced) funding".

'Case screening' should be introduced

Under-resourcing is a perennial challenge for investigative agencies the world over. But, proactive systems have been developed to make the best of a bad situation. One such potential solution, Apcof's report explains, is for IPID to introduce a system for "case screening".

Case screening would see IPID prioritise cases based on their seriousness and the extent to which they can be solved through dedicated investigation. Concentrating resources on such investigations could hold the most serious, violent and corrupt offenders in the police service accountable. That, in turn, would send a warning to other would-be offenders.

Many at IPID would recognise this as an uncontroversial recommendation – a version of case screening and prioritisation has been unofficial policy for some time.

During his tenure, former IPID director Robert McBride often expressed his preference for focusing the directorate's limited resources on "high-impact" investigations. In 2018, McBride defined these "low-volume-high-value" cases as "corruption cases involving senior police officers".

The case screening system proposed by Apcof would see the definition of "high-value" cases extend to murder, rape, torture, severe assaults and vindictive shootings that aim to kill or maim.

Encouragingly, the ethos of prioritising "high-value" cases has endured beyond McBride's tenure. Yet this approach is not only informal but also in conflict with official performance targets which reward high completion rates.

IPID's main performance target on investigations aims for quantity and remains blind to the seriousness of the alleged crime.

It is the quantitative statistics, not the directorate's impact on serious cases and police conduct, which IPID reports to Parliament each year and upon which IPID's performance is assessed.

Apcof recommends a formal case screening system would require that new performance measures be introduced. These would focus on how "IPID is impacting on the most serious crimes committed by the police".

IPID's Strategic Plan, where its current and apparently ill-advised performance targets are outlined, expires this year. A new Strategic Plan must soon be reviewed and approved by Parliament. This means that Apcof's report may have been published within a rare window of opportunity during which Parliament, working with IPID's management, can intervene to redraft the directorate's priorities for the next five years.

Senna has said that IPID is willing to "look at" formalising a system of case screening at "a policy level". But, working towards such a policy departure would need the buy-in from Parliament's PCP – the institution to which IPID accounts.

The outcome of Wednesday's sitting may give the best indication of the committee's intent. If it fails to act, it may be up to the committee's constituents – South Africans who want to see real accountability from an often corrupt and brutal police service – to urge an expansion of political will.

*This piece was first published on Viewfinder.

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