The case backlog experienced at the South African Police Service (SAPS) Forensic Science Laboratories has begun to clear, Police Minister Bheki Cele has told Parliament.
He was addressing Members of Parliament during a debate on Tuesday.
Over the past two years, the effective provision of service ground to almost a halt, due to budget constraints and ineffective and weak contract management.
Challenges in the service began with funding suspension of the criminal justice system by the National Treasury due to changes to its strategic objectives.
“This move meant there was an increased reliance on the operational budget in order to continue with the business of policing,” he said.
During 2019/2020 financial year, the allocated operational budget was depleted by July 2019.
“A request was then made for additional funding which was allocated in November 2019. No procurement could be initiated in December 2019. Added to that, the SAPS stopped all procurement from a supplier providing many forensic products to the SAPS,” said Cele.
During this period, several contracts were coming to an end due to the non-availability of funding while new contracts were not activated.
“To avoid fiscal dumping, no procurement could be facilitated at that stage. As a result, the core function of the laboratories was at a standstill until August of the 2020/2021 financial year,” he said.
From June 2020, no electronic track and trace functionality was done due to the discontinuation of the system by the service provider. As a result, tracking and tracing of exhibits could only be done manually.
This manual work saw a rapid build-up of cases, as forensic analysts were only processing a fraction of what could be processed with the discontinued system. As a result, testing of specimens for DNA also reached a bottleneck. This was a direct result of the shortage of Quantification Kits (DNA consumables).
These kits are essential for DNA testing at the SAPS laboratories. The reality is that this particular shortage was due to poor contract management in the SAPS.
Currently, the backlog stands at 208 291 cases. Of these, over 60 000 are at the laboratories but have not been analysed. Just over 36 626 are DNA related while 82 000 are related to cases of Gender-Based Violence and Femicide.
Of the four SAPS Forensic Science Laboratories, the Gauteng province experienced the largest degree of DNA backlogs at 115%. The Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape followed with 113%, 81% and 44%, respectively.
“The huge backlog is unacceptable,” conceded Cele. “We totally agree.”
Despite this, SAPS management has in recent months been hard at work to implement an urgent turnaround plan for the sake of all victims of crime, especially women and children.
“About 42% of dockets for crimes committed against women and children that had been outstanding for over a year, have been finalised,” he said.
It was for this reason, he said, all cases relating to GBV and Femicide were being prioritised based on guidance from the National Prosecuting Authority.
Over 77 480 such court-ready but have outstanding results are being processed.
Already, over 2 500 such cases have so far been finalised.
“Our goal is to bring normality back to the operations of the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratories within the next 18 months,” he said.
In an effort to expand the country’s forensic capacity, the SAPS was already constructing a DNA analysis capability building at the Eastern Cape Forensic Laboratory.
“The Eastern Cape and the KZN laboratories are currently providing limited services. We are certain that once fully operational, they will further assist towards the achievement of the 18 month stabilization target,” said the Minister.
Added to this, an inability to track and trace exhibits in its laboratories, as a result of the withdrawal of a service provider, was another dilemma facing the SAPS.
However, in collaboration with the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), the SAPS have developed the now operational Forensic Exhibit Management (FEM) System. Replacing its predecessor, the system went live on 6 April and was rolled out to the four SAPS Forensic laboratories.
“[Before this forensic analysts] processed around a thousand specimens a week. Within a month, a total of 63 576 cases were registered, tracked and traced electronically. Over 33 750 of the total of cases were registered in the biology environment,” said the Minister.
Cele said SAPS was currently undertaking a contract management system in the laboratories.
He assured the National Assembly that this was receiving urgent attention to address the backlog.
Additional R250 million allocated towards responding to the challenges in laboratories
He said COVID-19 protocols were compromising the availability of operational capacity in laboratories. SAPS management was increasing human capacity building to meet demand.
In this regard, 128 internal scientists have been and are now working in the operational environment of the laboratories.
A further 28 appointments are set to be finalised to provide support services.
“We are also recruiting outside the organisation for forensic analysts, who will work at a Warrant Officer level. When this recruitment process is finalised, there will be an additional 150 analysts to add to the existing staff complement by July 2021,” said Cele.
He said the SAPS’ goal was to have 40% of human resources dedicated to addressing backlogs and 60% of staff complement handle incoming cases.
The Minister said it was important that the critical service was never again compromised.
Checks and balances in place
It was for this reason that the SAPS was putting checks and balances in place to avoid a repeat.
“We are also developing an early warning system for effective response to system anomalies and to address teething problems experienced in the FEM system,” said Cele.
There will also be weekly technical and mechanical progress evaluations by SAPS and the DNA board.
Lastly, there will now be collaborative work between the SAPS, Department of Justice and the NPA.
Officials in the departments will meet monthly to fast track long outstanding court cases requiring DNA analysis reports.
He said while the SAPS was not out of the woods, progress was being made.
“We are fully aware of the significant and severe impact that the backlog and delays have caused. However, we remain confident in our intervention measures that are aimed at regaining public confidence and equally restoring organisational reputation and image,” he said.