Police watchdog promises to improve, but controversial targets remain

Funding shortfalls call into question IPID’s ability to fulfil its mandate

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Photo of parliament

IPID presented its new five-year Strategic Plan to Parliament on Wednesday. Photo: Brent Meersman

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) has resolved to change its policy to prioritise the most serious cases of police criminality in South Africa, spokesperson Sontaga Seisa has confirmed. This is in-line with recent expert recommendations aimed at maximising the watchdog’s impact.

Performance indicators which reward case workers who take shortcuts on investigations, however, remain in place. This is contrary to expert recommendations and IPID’s own commitments made in February.

On Wednesday, IPID presented its new Strategic Plan to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing and the Select Committee on Security and Justice. The plan will guide the work of the directorate over the next five years. The meeting was held on a virtual platform because of the Covid-19 lockdown.

In response to an earlier query from Viewfinder, Seisa confirmed that management supported“impact orientated” performance indicators. But, Parliamentary deadlines for the Strategic Plan and the Covid-19 pandemic had disrupted the process for developing and adopting new indicators.

Former committee chairperson Annelize van Wyk told Viewfinder that with political will from IPID management, and proper oversight from Parliament it was possible for performance indicators to be amended in the months to come. IPID’s indicators and strategic direction are reviewed on an annual basis.

For now, IPID retains its old performance indicators. This means that IPID case management practices remain vulnerable to manipulation as provincial offices race to generate good performance statistics towards monthly, quarterly and annual reporting deadlines. The consequences of this practice for police accountability and for victims of police brutality was the subject of a Viewfinder exposé published in October 2019.

The risk of recurring manipulation in IPID case management is now heightened by the inability of its head office to ensure ethics and “professionalism” through the ranks. During the presentation, IPID Acting Chief Financial Officer Victor Senna said that IPID’s “integrity strengthening” work had been compromised by budget shortfalls. This means docket inspections, where managers vet the quality of investigations, will not happen as much as needed.

The risk is also heightened due to funding cuts to IPID’s core programme – investigations. Though investigators will have less funding available to them, they are now expected to “complete” more investigations to hit their targets than during the prior financial year.

The effect of this pressure to hit performance targets was laid bare by an IPID investigator interviewed by Viewfinder last year.

“The main aim of IPID is to move as many cases from ‘active’ to ‘decision ready’ (i.e. ‘completed’) as quickly as possible. By itself, the ‘decision ready’ status is meaningless. It has no actual impact on the offender. Without an arrest, without a prosecution, without a conviction there is no accountability,” the investigator said, adding that the practice obstructed justice for victims.

As has repeatedly been the case in recent years, the impact of resource constraints on the watchdog’s ability to assist victims and properly investigate police criminality loomed large for the duration of Wednesday’s meeting.

IPID reported that it cannot fund its “expansion strategy” by which it proposes to become more accessible to victims in rural communities.

IPID reported that it cannot employ external experts to assist with investigations. This means that IPID remains reliant on the police – the institution that it is tasked to hold accountable – for forensic and technical expertise. In 2019, IPID warned of “infiltration” by police officials who seek to derail IPID investigation.

IPID reported that it cannot pay for a security analysis report, which it needs to better protect its investigators. In March, IPID investigator Mandla Mahlangu was murdered at home just days before former police commissioner Kgomotso Phalane was due in court on corruption charges. A consensus is slowly developing that Mahlangu was likely assassinated for his investigation of graft at the highest ranks of the police service.

But it was not all bad news at the briefing. IPID reported that it intended to reopen four offices that were shut due to funding constraints in 2018: Upington (Northern Cape), Rustenburg (North West), Qwaqwa (Free State) and Mthatha (Eastern Cape). The closure of these satellite offices left large swathes of the country without any reasonable proximity to an IPID office. This meant that investigators had to travel untenably long distances, especially in the vast Northern Cape province, to meet complainants and investigate police criminality in small towns and rural areas.

IPID also reported that it had allocated R41 million to back pay employees that were short-changed by years of underpayment. The underpayment of investigators has been a long standing grievance of investigators and sapped morale at the directorate.

At question time, MPs echoed concerns about how IPID’s funding woes will impact on its ability to hold the police accountable.

Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam (NFP) warned that IPID may be too “optimistic” in projecting that it can effectively hit its targets in light of budget constraints and a rising number of complaints against the police.

But, technical glitches on the virtual platform meant the meeting had to be cut short. Committee chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson said that a follow-up meeting would be scheduled for IPID to respond to questions from MPs.

The committees issued a statement on Thursday which expressed concern that funding challenges “impede” IPID’s work. It also said that “the expansion of the IPID footprint is critical as it will promote policing that is within the ambit of the rule of law and respects human rights.”

This article was produced by Viewfinder, a project incubated by GroundUp. The article forms part of an ongoing investigation of police criminality and oversight in South Africa. It was made possible, in part, by a Henry Nxumalo Grant for Investigative Reporting.

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