ISS: The South African Police Service must renew its focus on specialised units


Jackie Selebi’s appointment as national commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in 2000 precipitated nearly ten years of turmoil for the police in general, and specialised investigative units in particular.

Selebi’s strategic plan, developed in the year of his appointment, initially appeared to be sound and focused on four ‘key strategic priorities’. These were to combat organised crime; counter serious and violent crime; reduce crimes against women and children and to improve service delivery.

Many of the decisions that were subsequently made, however, were the result of misunderstanding or ignorance of certain policing functions and their importance. For example, crime control was understood simply to mean that the more visible the police were, the less crime there would be. This resulted in resources and attention being allocated to visible policing components and tactics such as ‘crackdown’ operations. On the other hand, the importance of detective services and crime intelligence were largely ignored and, as a result, suffered from a lack of resources.

This became apparent as early as 2001 when Selebi announced that the various SAPS specialised investigative units would be consolidated into only three units. These were the Organised Crime Unit (OCU), the Serious and Violent Crime Unit (SVC) and the Commercial Crime Unit (CCU). A number of important, long-standing specialised units were closed down at this time, including the South African Narcotics Bureau (SANAB) and the internal Anti-Corruption Unit.

The functions of units such as SANAB and the vehicle crime unit were ostensibly taken over by the OCU. Units such as murder and robbery, and taxi violence were incorporated into the SVC unit. Only the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS) and the Stock Theft Unit retained their status.

Furthermore, Selebi thought that because most crimes were reported at police stations, all available resources should be allocated at this level. He stated as much in September 2006, saying that ‘… the restructuring of the police will lead to a redeployment [that] would see a substantial increase in staff at police stations.’ The fundamental idea was that specialised units that were based at the SAPS area offices, serving around 20 police stations each, would have their staff and resources ‘decentralised’ to station level – thereby bolstering local policing resources.

Consequently, the SVC units were dissolved and decentralised to the 169 police stations that were identified as recording the highest levels of violent crime. The FCS units’ capacity was distributed among 176 larger-sized ‘accounting’ police stations; stations that were meant to provide a supervisory role to four to five smaller police stations in the area.

The ‘decentralisation’ of these units did not have the intended effect. Rather, it resulted in the loss of specialised investigative capacity within the SAPS. This is because investigators of specialised units become experts in identifying, understanding and solving specific crime types. A professional ethos develops within such units whereby officers can share lessons and experiences, and approach each other for advice.

Specialist investigators develop informer networks, and become familiar with emerging and changing modus operandi of criminals or networks. They are therefore quickly able to mobilise their specialist knowledge and capacity to solve potentially sensitive crimes such as rape, or more complex cases such as corruption or organised crime.

Furthermore, experienced members are able to mentor and guide younger or new investigators until they acquire the necessary expertise to investigate certain crime types effectively. This sustains and regenerates the necessary specialist capacity within the organisation, preventing such expertise from being lost.

By dispersing specialist personnel across a large number of police stations, the benefits of specialisation disappeared. At the station level, detectives who specialised in solving rape, child abuse or corruption, for example, lost their support structures and were often allocated dockets involving other more general crimes. As a result, many experienced detectives lost their networks and their expertise went unutilised. Furthermore, the SAPS lost the institutional ability to maintain and regenerate this capacity.

The ‘restructuring’ of the Public Order Policing (POP) unit in 2006 was particularly problematic. During the 2004/05 financial year, there were 43 specific POP units, consisting of 7 227 trained members spread out across the country. During this year, the police recorded 562 incidents of public violence. In the following year, public violence incidents escalated by 66% to a total of 932 cases. Yet, against the advice of more experienced senior officers, Selebi decided to close down 20 of the 43 units and to reduce their trained members by 64% to only 2 595. He argued that the specialised POP members should rather be used to strengthen local policing.

The impact of this decision was soon exposed when, during the widespread xenophobic attacks in May 2008, the remaining POP units were quickly overstretched and the military had to be deployed to provide support. It was subsequently decided to rebuild the POP units, but the latest figures show that there are still only 27 regional units and one national (reserve) unit, with a combined strength of 4 700 trained members. This is still 35% below the 2006 staff levels, but by now the number of public violence incidents has increased by 235%, from 562 to 1 882.

There has been mounting public criticism of police brutality and the loss of life that occurred during some highly publicised POP actions in the past three years. This eventually moved the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, in February this year to publicly announce a process to expand the capacity of the POP units to 9 000 members, and to revisit their training and equipment.

Much earlier, in July 2009, the minister already acknowledged that the restructuring of the specialised units had to be ‘reviewed’ and that there was a need to consider the ‘reintroduction’ of some of these specialised units. Since June 2010, there was a rapid rebuilding of the FCS units to address crimes against women and children, resulting in the current number of 176 units. Consequently, the number of investigators with specialist training and skills in such crimes has increased from 1 120 FCS detectives in 2006 (following the restructuring), to 2 064 with 132 support staff in 2012.

No further announcement has been made about the possible reintroduction of other specialised units, except for a statement by the current national commissioner of SAPS, Riah Phiyega, in July 2013 that the Anti-Corruption Unit is to be re-established in the course of this year.

There is little doubt that the restructuring processes within the SAPS under Jackie Selebi’s leadership curtailed specialisation, resulting in a loss of expertise and negative consequences for the fight against crime. It is indeed worrying that – with the exception of the FCS units, and to some extent the Anti-Corruption Unit and Public Order Police Units – the SAPS appears reluctant to follow up on the re-establishment of other urgently needed specialised units.

It is, however, encouraging that the National Development Plan, approved by the South African Cabinet in September 2012, strongly recommends the re-establishment of specialised units. Hopefully, this will assist in rectifying the mistakes of the past and result in a more effective police organisation.

Written by Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original story can be found here.