01 Safety and security minister Nathi Mththwa addresses the media . Crime statistics were released to the public by police heads at a a function held at The Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria. Picture: Antoine de Ras .09/09/2010

Damage claims against the SAPS are prevalent, placing a heavy toll on taxpayers while the guilty cops walk free, says Zelda Venter.

Pretoria - A lack of training is probably the biggest reason why taxpayers are forking out millions of rand in damages for claims against the police.

In the past week alone, Pretoria News reported on four cases in which almost R1 million had to be paid to members of the public. The amount excludes legal fees.

This is only a drop in the ocean because not all cases are publicised and, on any given day, there is at least one damages claim against the police on the court roll of the North Gauteng High Court.

Not all the claims come from city dwellers; many claimants are from rural areas.

While the public pays up, the offending members of the police service simply continue with their daily duties, without facing any consequences: the money does not come from their pockets and they rarely, if ever, have to face any repercussions for their actions.

In most cases, they have to only testify in court about the incidents – something which clearly, from their behaviour, they view as an annoying part of their job.

And they are absent when it is judgment time and the presiding judge lets it be known what they think of the officers and their actions.

Apart from the damages, which range from a couple of thousand rand to millions, the taxpayer must also foot the legal bills that often amount to more than the damages payout.

In most cases, the SAPS offer a blanket denial regarding the facts of a particular case, which makes one wonder whether they remember the incident or or are simply offering a denial as a matter of course.

Time and again, judges presiding over cases in the North Gauteng High Court have remarked that the police service has failed in its duty towards citizens.

Most cases can be attributed to incompetence – many members do not know how to conduct themselves in certain situations.

A lack of training is clearly the biggest problem. Most of the officers do not know what is required from them under the law. For example, some people are detained and held in a filthy police cells for days on end, when there is no need for them to be held.

Judges have made it clear that a person’s liberty is enshrined in the constitution and that a suspect should only be detained as a last resort.

Another problem is shoddy investigation. In many cases a suspect is arrested on the strength of a vague description or following an incriminating statement made by only one “witness” – often the complainant.

This week, a Kuruman teacher was awarded R75 000 after her estranged husband claimed she broke into his house.

She spent a night in jail and was released when the claims against her proved to be false, but the damage had been done.

In another case, a man was arrested at a rehabilitation centre for “contravening” a protection order.

But the SAPS never served the order on him.

Acting Judge Jan Hiemstra, who presides over many such cases, recently awarded a man R200 000 for unlawful arrest and detention, remarking that “outrageous behaviour by members of the SAPS towards the public is the order of the day”.

Another judge remarked that it was time that offending police officers foot the legal bills from their own pockets.

The Institute of Security Studies’s Johan Burger says a lack of training is the biggest problem.

He agrees that if the officers were personally held accountable for their wrongdoing, it could help matters.

In 2012, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that offending SAPS members would be held personally liable if wrongdoing on their part could be proved.

I have not encountered a single case where this has happened.

The absence of legislation to hold them accountable may be a reason why judges have not made policemen pay up.

As the number of damages claims keep rolling in, the SAPS needs to take a good look at training, discipline and accountability so that damages claims become the exception and not the order of the day.

* Zelda Venter is High Court Reporter for the Pretoria News.

Pretoria News