Are we getting a ‘bang for our buck’ when it comes to policing?
Every year for over a decade large budgetary allocations have been handed to the police so as to demonstrate that the government is taking crime seriously. Indeed, the police have been receiving way above inflationary increases every year for well over a decade. In the four years since 2009/10, the police budget has increased by 41.8%. These large budget allocations have allowed the police to grow so that it is currently 50% larger in size than it was in 2002/03 with about 68 000 more personnel. For the 2013/14 financial year, the SAPS will receive a total budget of R71.02 billion. This is still an above inflationary increase of 7.3% compared to what the police received in 2012/13. It is high time we start to ask whether these budget allocations are being utilised effectively.
For the past decade most of the SAPS budget has gone into hiring more uniformed personnel with the intention to improving ‘police visibility.’ Indeed, police visibility has improved as has the arrest rate. For example, the number of arrests made by police increased by a substantial 48% in the past decade. Between 2011 and 2012 it increased by 11% taking the total number of arrests made to 1.6 million arrests. One would reasonably expect that this should have a significant impact on lowering the crime rate.
It may therefore come as a surprise to find that this has not been the case. In 2011/2012 the total amount of crime recorded slightly increased by 0.7% to 2 085 757 cases. During this time total property-related crime increased by 0.3%, while total violent crime decreased by a marginal 2.3%. The reason is that most of these arrests do not result in any further sanction and therefore are not an adequate deterrent. Of the total amount of arrests made, 52% or 836 114 arrests are for crimes less serious than shoplifting such as ‘petty’ public nuisance offences.
These very rarely make it before court. In fact, even for serious offences there has been a reduction in the numbers of cases finalised in court over the past decade. In the past three years, since 2009/10, the total number of cases finalised in courts has dropped by almost 10%, resulting in 34 810 fewer cases in which criminal suspects have been sentenced. This can be attributed to inadequate numbers and the performance of detectives who are responsible for gathering evidence that allows for the prosecution of criminal suspects.
Importantly, the dramatic growth in the police budget and personnel has not translated into better police-community relations. Wide scale police abuse and corruption continue to negatively impact citizens’ perceptions of the police such that less than half the adult population trust the police and 66% think that corruption is a widespread problem.
Given the substantial increases in the police budgets, personnel and arrests figures, why are crime rates still so high and why does the citizenry still not trust the police? Fortunately, we know the answers to these questions as they have been repeatedly highlighted in various research and other diagnostic initiatives over the years. In short, inadequate numbers of criminal suspects are identified and successfully brought before courts because of widespread neglect of the detective services for a number of years now. This has been known internally since 2003 when a large internal survey undertaken to measure citizens’ experiences of the SAPS revealed that people were least satisfied with the performance of station level detectives.
Details of shortcomings in policing are also available in the 2007 and 2008 reports of the police Policy Advisory Council. This structure consisted of retired, experienced police Generals and was established with the objective of assessing station level policing. The Generals visited three quarters of all police stations country wide and found endemic problems of poor management, inadequate training and resource distribution resulting in worrying levels of police service delivery, misconduct and corruption at police stations. The subsequent Presidential review of the criminal justice system, whose findings were released in 2008, again detailed the consequences of these policing shortcomings for the criminal justice system as a whole.
Aware that there are serious problems facing the detectives, the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, declared 2012 “the year of the detective.” The purpose of this initiative was to dedicate attention towards improving police investigations. During a ‘dialogue on detectives’ held by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee of Police on 5 September 2012, there was evidence that this attention had resulted in more funding being allocated to the detective services since 2010/11. This meant that the Detective Services were receiving 20% of the budget as compared with the 16% it had been receiving in previous years. However, it was also revealed that with a total of 23 676 detectives there were still 1 500 fewer detectives than required. This means that most detectives still carried very heavy case-loads. This limits the time that they can dedicated to effectively solving many criminal cases. Worryingly, one in five detectives lacks proper training and three detectives have to share one computer.
So when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced in the 2013 budget speech that the police will prioritise R2.5 billion over the mid-term expenditure framework (MTEF) period to improve detective and forensic capacity, can we really expect things to improve? Perhaps not, if nothing else changes in the police. There is hope however if the recommendations of the National Development Plan (NDP) are implemented as a matter of urgency. The NDP is clear that there must be a move to demilitarise and professionalise the police. It gives a number of practical recommendations for achieving this. The most important ones concern improving the senior leadership of the police.
While there are many excellent police officers throughout the SAPS, there are also far too many senior managers who do not know how to improve policing. They have been appointed into the upper echelons of the SAPS for reasons that have little to do with their expertise, honesty and integrity but rather for their personal ties and political loyalties. The damaging effect of this was deeply felt last year for example when it emerged that the SAPS National Head of Crime Intelligence Richard Mdluli had been irregularly appointed by the Minister of Police. After his arrest by the Hawks on murder and corruption charges, he wrote a number of letters indicating his willingness to abuse his powers in the interest of President Jacob Zuma. The Minister of Police directly intervened to protect him from internal SAPS investigations and disciplinary processes and this led to a crisis of mistrust and discontent amongst the senior management echelon. This was because honest police managers resented the favouritism being demonstrated towards him despite the damage his appointment was having on the organisation.
It is important to note that this debacle followed the hugely damaging legacies of two previous SAPS National Commissioners who were both forced to leave their posts due to corruption and incompetence. It seems not much has been learnt from these past incidents.
The NDP clearly recognises that as a consequence of leadership crises the SAPS cannot become the well-respected professional police agency it could be. The NDP therefore recommends that a ‘National Policing Board’ consisting of multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary expertise be established to set standards for recruiting, selecting, appointing and promoting police managers and officials. Importantly, the NDP recommends that the SAPS National Commissioner and the Deputies must only be appointed following a competitive selection process.
This process would be driven by a panel that interviews and assesses candidates against objective criteria. The President would then make the appointment from the vetted shortlist. Indeed, this will prevent a situation where the head of the SAPS for instance knows nothing about policing and is therefore unable to give the necessary strategic and ethical guidance required to professionalise the SAPS as has been the case to date.
Until the NDP recommendations are implemented properly, budget allocations to the SAPS will be spent on poorly considered policing strategies that are not rooted in international or local best practice. Frustrated and demoralised police officials will continue to engage in corruption and other acts of misconduct. Public mistrust of the police will continue thereby limiting the ability of the organisation to reduce crime. South Africa has the resources, people and expertise to substantially improve policing. The political will to make the appropriate, ethical decisions in terms of appointments and utilisation of resources is urgently required. Let’s hope that the country’s leadership will realise this soon.
Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division
Institute for Security Studies