When a police officer commits a crime, whether on or off duty, people feel worried. We want police to be exemplary; people we can look up to; good guys in our fight against the baddies. So how do you feel to discover that members of the police, convicted of serious crimes, routinely keep their jobs in the force?
This emerged from an appeal judgment delivered on Tuesday, dealing with the rape of a 13-year-old girl by a detective in 1998.
He was charged, convicted and, appropriately, discharged from the police. When the girl came of age, she sued the minister of safety and security, saying the minister, as the detective's ultimate boss, was vicariously liable for the actions of her attacker.
The appeal court's decision in the case is important. But it's also significant in that it allows a wider public to discover just how lax police standards have become.
During the rape trial of the former George detective, Allister van Wyk, it emerged that he already had a criminal record, including a conviction of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm; another of negligent discharge of a firearm while under the influence; and another for assault.
Despite these convictions, he rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming a detective - an officer who had "vast police powers" and "limited control by his superiors", as one judge put it. And this wasn't merely an oversight or a failure by someone to read his files.
One of his bosses at the time of the original trial clarified the position. This officer - he has since left the police - carried significant rank as provincial commander: general investigations.
In command of all Western Cape detectives, this was a man who should know what he was talking about. Asked whether he was surprised that Van Wyk was kept on in the police given his tarnished record, this officer replied: "(T)here are guys who have done worse things who have stayed on in the (police) service." He added that an officer would not be put on operational duties only when he or she was declared unfit to carry a firearm.
The public is supposed to trust the police, but how is that possible, given this officially sanctioned presence in their midst of known criminals? The majority in this week's judgment found that the minister does not have vicarious liability for this rape because the detective was off duty.
Leaving that question aside, it must be the minister's responsibility to ensure policies in terms of which criminal members of the police are sacked. That such a rule does not exist must make it more likely that a criminal among the police will rape or otherwise attack members of the public.
Some years ago the Constitutional Court decided a case in which a woman was raped by three on-duty officers, holding the minister vicariously liable.
This week's case concerned a detective who was off duty but on standby or on call. The exact meaning and significance of these terms were much debated and ultimately even the five appeal judges did not agree. V
an Wyk was on standby after he ended work on the day of the rape, but he was not called out.
That night he went drinking at a club with friends, taking the official but unmarked police car even though this was against the rules. He found a girl at the club, stranded and without a lift, offered to take her home and raped her along the way.
All five judges agreed that he was on standby at the time of the attack. But two held that by using an official car and offering the girl a lift when she needed help he had "subjectively placed himself on official duty". They added: "And once he did, he assumed the status and obligations of an on-duty police officer."
In the view of the majority three judges, however, while a detective is between shifts and until he or she is called upon to resume duty, that police officer "is not subject to the control of his or her employer" and the minister was therefore not responsible. It's a disagreement that could yet be considered by the Constitutional Court.
And if it is, that court should surely also deal with the problem of criminal cops being allowed to stay in the police.