Police officers speak out about their experiences investigating sexual and gender-based violence cases in South Africa

By Marinda Weideman

Police officers speak out about their experiences investigating sexual and gender-based violence cases in South Africa

Police officers are often blamed when sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases do not result in criminal convictions. Results from a study titled ‘Survivors’ perceptions of the efficacy of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) in South Africa for adults and children affected by SGBV’ completed by Childline Gauteng and independent researcher Dr. M. Weideman in December 2021, suggest that where SGBV against adults and children is concerned, a more nuanced understanding of the police’s role in the CJS is required.

Some of the most relevant findings of the study are summarized below.

Firstly, the low number of convictions is the consequence of a chain of attritional factors that include families and communities who dissuade or prevent survivors from speaking out or laying charges; survivors not reaching medical facilities, or reaching them too late; poor or extensive police investigations, communication or follow-up; and an alienating legal system (particularly for children) that despite many commendable improvements still does not adequately account for the effects of trauma or socio-economic deprivation.

Secondly, many of the adult survivors or adults representing children who have survived SGBV who participated in the study described their interactions with the police in positive terms. Despite some reports of unkind or even abusive behavior, most described the police as “helpful” (81%) and “kind” (82%).

Furthermore, 94% agreed that “it was easy for the police officer to take my statement”; 75% said that police officers referred them to people or institutions that provided legal or psychosocial support; 81% of the child survivors were taken to medico-legal facilities by the police; and 71% waited less than 30 minutes to be attended to (83% waited less than an hour).

Most (77%) said their statements were taken in a private room. However, 23% of survivors had their statements taken in the charge office or the main reception area, sometimes because the police station did not have the required facilities.

Among those who did press charges, 87% remembered receiving a case number; 89% had an investigating officer assigned to their case; and 72% reported regular interaction with the investigating officer.

Thirdly, the reasons for the high rates of crime and violence in South Africa are systemic. These include the psychological, spatial, and economic legacies of apartheid; widespread poverty and deprivation; absent or deteriorating infrastructure; absent or poorly implemented urban planning; the prevalence of harmful patriarchal norms and practices; malnutrition; intergenerational violence; extremely high rates of unemployment; and substance abuse. These are neither problems the police created, nor problems the police can solve. Nevertheless, there is often an expectation on the part of society and the media that they do so.

Fourthly, interviews with nine representatives of the Gauteng-based Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units (FCS) of the South African Police Services (SAPS) show that police officers face multiple challenges and barriers that prevent them from effectively performing their duties. These include:

  • For a variety of reasons, SGBV survivors often choose not to press charges, or withdraw their charges. This has a negative effect on morale within the police force.
  • Obtaining statements from children requires a specific skill set and is challenging. The challenges highlighted by officers include young children sometimes having difficulty expressing themselves verbally due to underdeveloped language skills; young children sometimes struggling with a sense of time and logical narration; when eyewitnesses are children, their parents often refusing to give consent for them to be interviewed by investigating officers; when perpetrators are family members or friends, children often feel obliged to protect them; and often interviews are affected by parents trying to speak on behalf of their children.
  • Survivors frequently relocate or change their phone numbers or other contact details without informing investigating officers. This complicates and delays investigations and negatively affects communication between the police and the survivors they seek to serve.
  • There are massive delays at DNA laboratories. This results in extensive delays, the abandonment of the process by survivors, cases being thrown out of court, or a failure to obtain convictions. The latter is particularly problematic in cases where “inexperienced prosecutors rely solely on the DNA evidence to prove their cases, while ignoring all the other evidence they could use”.

“There was a problem of government contracts with service providers who provide the chemicals necessary for DNA testing. That has been outstanding for so long that we ran out of chemicals. There was also a shortage of the crime kits we need to collect DNA samples from survivors and perpetrators . . . Hopefully this comes right . . . but at one stage there was a backlog of DNA test results for 29, 000 cases. That does not even include all the new cases. That was the status quo for 2019! Cases from 2020 and 2021 are not included in that 290,000 for which results are still outstanding. I don’t have that much hope for the work of the Forensic Science Laboratory. . . That is another problem that makes our jobs very difficult. Police officers cannot finalize cases without the DNA evidence and then people get frustrated, but they do not realize that the police officers do not do the forensic analysis. The police officer just hands over the kit to the experts. The experts keep saying they are not ready. Sometimes, this goes on for years. Now you must go to court and tell them each time that the DNA results are not ready. You find yourself there every three months with this same story. Then you look incompetent to people and the matter is struck off the roll. The investigating officer then takes all the blame”.

  • During investigations, police officers are often dependent on other role players in the CJS. This includes reports from medical officials, probation officers, psychologists and social workers that are often delayed. These delays create mistrust and despondence among survivors and can contribute to decisions to drop charges.

“Their expert opinion reflected in their reports are highly rated by the courts and this strengthens the cases of survivors for a possible conviction. But they delay the process. Securing a date for a psychological assessment and getting a report mostly takes too long, such that a case may be finalized without the report, due to the defence attorney raising the constitutional right of the accused to a speedy trial”.

  • Police work can also be negatively affected by the actions of defense attorneys who utilize delays in the submission of DNA evidence or psychosocial and medical reports to have cases dismissed or to push for a hearing in the absence of crucial evidence.
  • Similarly negative effects occur when prosecutors withdraw cases or refuse to take cases that they are not certain to win because prosecutors wish to achieve their own performance targets.

“Prosecutors often do not want to place dockets on court rolls when they think that the chances of a successful conviction are low. They have targets to reach in terms of their conviction rates and are discouraged from taking these cases to court”.

  • Witnesses and survivors are often poorly prepared, or completely unprepared, to appear in court. Defense attorneys then find it easy to dent their credibility, making a conviction unlikely despite the existence of a case docket with solid evidence.

“Court preparation is the responsibility of the social workers placed at court, but mostly we see that it is the NGOs [not the social workers from the Department of Social Development] who are doing this work. These social workers from the NGOs are overwhelmed because there are so many traumatized individuals, and then these social workers are not able to properly prepare the survivors before they appear in court. Then the survivors become poor witnesses and their credibility is questioned. You cannot testify on their behalf [unfortunately]. They are the ones who must face the lawyers and the magistrates, and who must answer the questions. Remember the trauma they went through? Now when they are in court, the defence lawyer will label them. They just break down and cry. Then the defence lawyer will say something like ‘yes, you are crying, you are a liar, what else are you lying about?’. Then the witness can’t answer, and any further credibility is gone. They [the defence lawyers] don’t care [about intimidating a child] . . . the poor traumatized child must stand there and cry so much. For example, the child has been abused by many people, he will be crying because he is reliving everything, but there he will be cross-examined and labeled a liar. And if the child does not answer satisfactorily, then the accused is not convicted”.

  • Police officers expressed frustration and concern for the safety of survivors because of the frequent release of perpetrators on bail. They argued that prosecutors often do not do enough to oppose bail and are often not a match for the defense attorneys.

“We often oppose it, but we can’t stop it. It is a problem, because they disappear, or they go back and kill her [the survivor]”.

  • There are neither enough specialized prosecutors in SGBV nor enough sexual offenses courts. As a result, many cases are “distributed to non-specialist prosecutors and to any available court, where service delivery to survivors is poor. Survivors end up withdrawing their cases, and when they don’t, the chances for a conviction are lower”.
  • Police officers identified inadequate psychosocial support for survivors as another challenge. There are not enough places of safety for survivors of SGBV in Gauteng. Police officers often struggle to find shelter for adult survivors or a place of safety for children. Furthermore, police officers are often forced to separate families because shelters for adult survivors generally do not accommodate older children. This can result in secondary trauma and further exposure to violence for survivors.
  • There are not enough social workers. Furthermore, the relationships between the police and social workers are complex. According to some SAPS representatives, social workers employed by the Department of Social Development (DSD) tend to “only work office hours” and are therefore often unavailable. “DSD social workers also do not attend stakeholder forums where the latest trends and practices are shared” thereby undermining the quality of services that survivors receive. Social workers employed by NGOs are available and committed but often do not have the resources required to effectively perform their duties.
  • SAPS’ work is negatively affected by human and other resource constraints. “We have limited resources at our disposal, which makes it more difficult to attend to our duties. We have a shortage of members and a shortage of equipment”. Survivors and caregivers who participated in the study also noticed these resource constraints. Six percent of participants said that the police officer who assisted them did not have access to a car when it was needed, while 53% said the police officer in question did not have a computer to work on.
  • An FCS unit in Gauteng reportedly serves five to eight police stations depending on the population density of an area.
  • In terms of international policing standards, the case to officer ratio should be 21 to 1. In Gauteng, an investigating officer has, on average, 70 ongoing cases.
  • There is an acute shortage of forensic social workers in the FCS units, with one forensic worker “serving more than 20 police stations”. Excluding existing cases and daily walk-ins, on average a forensic social worker opens 40 new cases per month. These pressures result in high rates of resignation and traumatization. The shortage also means that many survivors cannot be assisted in their home language, or a language in which they are fluent. “One forensic social worker cannot cater for all the languages . . . then the officer must transport the survivor to another area, like from Pretoria to the Vaal”.
  • SAPS representatives argued that ineffective communication between the various stakeholders and role players in the CJS is a weak point.

“There have been noticeable improvements in the way victims have been treated in the last two years, and the CJS is working better, but the biggest remaining weakness is the poor communication between stakeholders”.

“Lack of mutual understanding amongst stakeholders regarding the mandate, regulating policy of practice, authority, and limitation of legislation for each is a stumbling block to our efforts”.

“The courts do not always effectively communicate with us. This frustrates the victims and adds to the belief that we are not doing our jobs or that there will never be justice”.

  • The many challenges outlined negatively affect the mental and physical health of police officers, and, by extension, their ability to serve survivors of SGBV.

“I struggle with negativity because, after the investigation has been completed, then the victims are just left to their own devices”.

“There are high rates of burn-out among investigating officers”.

The findings and arguments outlined above suggest that capacitating, and increasing resource and psychosocial support for the police are necessary conditions for improving CJS outcomes for adult and child survivors of SGBV.