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SAPS shake-up seen as crime-fighting setback

South Africa

The closure of specialised units such as the family violence, child protection and sexual offences units is going to make it more difficult to track down serial killers and rapists.

And it is taking the fight against child and woman abuse back a decade.

This picture was painted on Sunday by police officers, who spoke to The Star on condition of anonymity, and gender organisations following the announcement a few weeks ago.

They said the move by the SA Police Service would have a huge impact in terms of losing skilled officers who specialise in dealing with cases of violence against women and children.

Experienced police officers and experts agreed that the shake-up was tantamount to giving criminals free rein in perpetrating sexual offences because local police stations tended to focus more on cases like hijackings, cash- in-transit heists and armed robberies, and domestic violence was at the bottom of the police's priority list.

Police Director Selby Bokaba said the reason for doing away with the family violence, child protection and sexual offences units (known as the FCS), the Serious and Violent Crime (SVC) Unit, the Area Crime Combating Unit and the National Intervention Unit was the low conviction rate.

Last year, parliament revealed that 21 702 cases of sexual crimes against children were reported in 2004, and 57 percent of these cases found their way into court. Only six percent of these cases resulted in convictions, despite the existence of the FCS.

Another reason for the overhaul was the strengthening of expertise at local police station level, Bokaba said.

A senior police officer said the move was taking the fight against child and woman abuse back 10 years, and it was happened at a time when units like the FCS were gaining a lot of experience in handling cases of serial rapists.

It would now be more difficult to detect serial rapists as cases would not be investigated at a centralised unit but at local police station level, he said.

The difficulty in investigating serial rape cases would be that police from various stations would not be able to compare dockets and therefore would not be able to realise that they were investigating the same person for the offences. Previously, dockets relating to rape were investigated by FCS members.

This was also the case when investigating serial murderers.

Another senior police officer said: "Since SVC unit members cover a wide area, they were ideal for dealing with crimes that occurred across station boundaries, such as serial murders. Currently, every SVC unit has at least one member trained in serial murder investigation. Once they are split up, there won't be a serial murder investigator in each area anymore, which will make the detection and investigation of these crimes more problematic."

Gender organisations said that, as major role-players, they were never consulted by the police about the overhaul of the units.

Joan van Niekerk of Childline said the rationalisation of specialist units was of great concern to Childline. She shared the two police officers' view that this was taking the fight against child and woman abuse back 10 years.

"Special skills will be lost. It (the move) will compromise effective policing in child abuse cases. Interviewing (abused) children requires highly specialised skills," said Van Niekerk.

Carrie Shelver of People Opposing Women Abuse said specialist units were needed in the police service and it would be sad to lose such units.

"You need to have specialist units, and all police officers (must be trained) to provide service to survivors of domestic violence," she said.

Lisa Vetten of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre said skills gained by police in handling cases of abuse would be lost.

Many police officers, at station level, did not like dealing with child abuse cases because they were difficult. "Within the police culture, child abuse is not real crime. Real crime is cash-in-transit heists. Good policing is not the conviction rate, but good service," said Vetten.

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