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Taxpayers continue to fork out for police brutality spurred by lack of sanctions on the errant, writes Ruth Hopkins
Steven Mothao was walking back home from a piece job on August 10, 2010, through Fordsburg in Joburg. Out of nowhere, three police officers appeared and pushed him against a wall.
While onlookers gawked at the unfolding incident, the officers slammed him in a police van and detained him in a police cell for 22 hours, 14 of which he was not even offered a glass of water, before he was kicked out on to the street again.
The officers never identified themselves, did not have an arrest warrant and did not inform Mothao of the reasons for his arrest. He sued the minister of police for damages resulting from the unlawful arrest and was awarded R150 000 in March.
Since 34 striking miners were brutally shot dead in Marikana in August last year, the SAPS has been in the spotlight and at the heart of a debate on the massacre.
Seminars on police brutality were organised and op-eds penned.
Public interest and attention naturally gravitate towards high-profile cases such as Marikana, the killing by police of taxi driver Mido Macia and the corrupt Cato Manor police squad.
The day-to-day interaction with the citizenry the police is supposed to protect and serve, however, often goes unnoticed.
Thomas Kadi experienced a similar ordeal to Mothao when he worked as a security guard for Protea Coin in Roodepoort in 2007.
One day, some pipes and other building material were stolen. A few days after the theft, Kadi’s boss and two police officers took him to Roodepoort police station, where he spent three days in custody.
After his release he found there were no charges brought, or an arrest warrant issued, and there was no evidence against him. The Wits Law Clinic helped him sue the minister and he was awarded R120 000.
Even though Kadi was innocent, he was laid off and could not complete the course in criminal justice he was following after work. Ironically, Kadi hoped to qualify as a paralegal so he could assist people in accessing their rights in criminal trials.
His wife ended up divorcing him and he now lives in a shack behind his sister’s house in Soweto.
Kadi remembers the three nights he spent in a police cell with clarity: “It was terrible, there were people crying, sometimes there were 12 men in the cell and you have no privacy whatsoever. Some cough and you know you have the chance to contract tuberculosis. It is dirty and smelly. The blankets they provide are full of bugs.”
Selwyn Afrikander was not only unlawfully arrested, the officers also beat him with sjamboks. The 23-year-old clerk was arrested in April.
He and a friend were returning home from a bar one Saturday night and as they walked through a dark street in Kempton Park towards Afrikander’s house, they were ambushed by police officers.
“There were two police officers who suddenly grabbed us and pushed us into a van. They drove us to the police station and brought us to a room. They cuffed us, they took their sjamboks out and beat us for about an hour.”
The officers put a plastic bag around Afrikander’s friend’s head and continued beating him, although he couldn’t breathe.
“They were yelling at us, Boesman, you have robbed people, tell us who you have robbed.”
Afrikander works as a clerk for Ekurhuleni metro police and is doing evening studies to further his career.
He pointed this out to the officers, but led to more beatings. Eventually, the cops let the two men go.
As in the cases of Mothao and Kadi, there was no warrant for his arrest and the officers didn’t identify themselves or bring any charges against them as legally required. When the two men got off the van outside Afrikander’s house the officers assured them they would arrest them again if a coloured person was a suspect in Kempton Park.
“I showed my mother the bruises and cuts on my back and she cried.”
Afrikander has no previous criminal record. The experience left him angry and bitter. “I don’t trust them and I will never trust an officer again. Whenever I see a police van, my heart pumps harder. I can’t communicate effectively at times any more, because of the flashbacks of what happened. The two officers are still on duty. I see them walking the streets in my neighbourhood. I wonder who is going to be their next victim.”
Unlike most people arrested unlawfully, Afrikander was acutely aware of his rights. The morning after he was beaten up, he went to the police station to file a complaint. He then visited a hospital, where a doctor tended to his injuries and filled in a J88 form, a standard form that generates medical evidence for someone who has experienced any form of assault.
Afrikander then contacted the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) to report the crime and initiate an internal investigation into the assault. His lawyer started a civil lawsuit on his behalf, claiming damages for the unlawful arrest and assault. There have been no disciplinary or other measures taken against the officers.
Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa recently acknowledged in Parliament that there were many civil claims against the police because they unlawfully arrested citizens. He admitted there were hardly any internal charges of misconduct or, in serious matters, criminal procedures instituted. Since 2009, payments for civil claims against the police have gone up by 100 percent. In the past four years, R137.2 million was awarded as damages for unlawful arrests. In addition, civil claims for assaults worth R800 000 were lodged against the police.
Taxpayers foot the bill for damages caused by reckless policing, while officers and their superiors often get off scot-free. The reasons for this surge in damages for unlawful police conduct are complex.
The SAPS has grown more than 50 percent since 2002. A mass recruitment drive has placed pressure on policing systems. Police training duration, for example, was shortened from two years to a year.
Recently, the minister decided to increase the duration to two years again, yet thousands of officers were not properly trained. Oversight, supervision and disciplinary mechanisms have been neglected in the push to accommodate the huge numbers of new officers.
This mass recruitment went hand in hand with managerial tough talk. Consecutive police ministers and commissioners have declared a “war on crime”.
In 2010 Mthethwa said at an event in Soweto: “Criminals have defined themselves as outcasts in the community and as such they must be treated. To be where we are, we have waged many battles and will fight many more.”
Bheki Cele had previously encouraged police officers to “shoot to kill” and worry about the consequences later. This belligerent discourse, combined with a rapidly expanding police force, produced an overzealous corps of coppers who feel they can act and think later.
David Mkhwanazi is one of the many innocent citizens who have become the collateral damage of this approach.
The former sales rep for a car dealership in Orange Farm saw his life disappear before his eyes when he was running to catch a train in Joburg suburb Ennerdale, in 2006. The police grabbed him, arrested him and took him to the police station.
They said he was part of gang of 10 criminals who had just robbed and murdered an owner of a brick company and were visiting a sangoma in Ennerdale to “cleanse” their weapons of fingerprints.
While in police custody, Mkhwanazi mistakenly signed a document he thought was his bail application, but it turned out to be a confession. The murder trial that ensued was marred by extensive delays and it took six years before he could mount the witness box to explain to the judge that he had nothing to do with the crime.
The judge released him because there was no compelling evidence against him.
Mkhwanazi returned to live with his family in Orange Farm, but he is unemployed, estranged from his wife and daughter and, not surprisingly, finds it hard to imagine a future for himself.
“I am angry with the police and the system, but I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford a lawyer and I don’t know where to start,” he said.
Mkhwanazi, like Afrikander, swears he will never trust an officer again.
Illegitimate arrests of citizens will erode the relationship between the men and women in blue and the community they are supposed to serve.
Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division of the Institute for Security Studies said at a conference on crime reduction this week: “Evidence supports the hypothesis that the less respectful police are towards suspects and citizens in general, the less people will comply with the law.”
Newham presented worrying statistics.
Since 2002 police brutality cases, registered by Ipid, went up 313 percent – a staggering average of five cases a day.
A survey into the image of the SAPS revealed that only 41 percent of the population had some trust in the police, while 35 percent were scared.
Two sisters from Benoni, who want to remain anonymous because their civil case against a police officer has not been finalised, have gone from trusting the police to being frightened at the mere sight of a uniform.
“My father was a policeman, we grew up in that kind of environment. I always defended the police, but now I fear them, every time I see a police vehicle, I start shaking,” the older sister said.
The two siblings were in a nightclub in Brakpan at the end of January 2010, when about 15 officers entered, ordered everyone outside and arrested nearly 30 people.
The younger sister was herded outside with others and made to stand against the wall. When her sibling came looking for her, a policeman started hitting her.
“He pushed me to the floor, pulled my hair and started kicking me,” she said.
She told the officer he was hurting her, but this just egged him on.
“He tightened the handcuffs even more and asked if I felt the pain.”
Everyone was pushed into a police vehicle, where the abuse continued.
“The officer claimed I had used bad language. When I denied that, he punched me in the face with his fist several times. When my sister told him to stop hitting me, he punched her in the face too.”
The sisters were detained in a cell for eight hours. They never learnt why they were arrested and there was no warrant for their arrest or a charge sheet.
They reported the abusive officer at the police station, but nothing happened. A few weeks later, they received a letter stating the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had decided not to prosecute. “I doubt they sent the report to the NPA.”
The sisters regularly see the policeman doing his rounds in the neighbourhood.
Community members say the officer has not changed his ways; he has beaten up other people, but still there have been no measures taken against him.
This blatant impunity for criminal acts seems to be a general trend. In the past five years, there were 11 880 criminal cases opened with Ipid, but only 129 cases led to convictions. Moreover, there are 1 448 serving officers with criminal records, including for murder rape and assault.
Internal disciplinary procedures do not seem to yield satisfactory results as one in five hearings finalised in 2011/12 was “not guilty” and one in three resulted in “no sanction” against the accused officer.
The Department of Police declined to comment.
* Ruth Hopkins is a journalist for the Wits Justice Project
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers
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