Embattled national police commissioner General Bheki Cele’s judgment was questioned on Thursday as he was chastised by the chairwoman of Parliament’s police portfolio committee for the poor state of police stations - which she insisted was directly related to the choice of managers and a lack of oversight by his department.
Drawing from the committee’s experiences during oversight visits to police stations around the country, chairwoman Sindi Chikunga said if she were commissioner for a day, “all SAPS officers would be dismissed immediately”.
“It makes you not able to sleep at night… Those getting promotions, national commissioner, where do you get these people from; these people you are promoting, where do you get them from?” she asked.
In one instance, on a visit to the Pretoria Central police station, a stone’s throw from the SAPS headquarters, the committee found that 11 accused who were supposed to be in the holding cells could not be accounted for, despite the register’s having been checked and signed.
At a police station in Gauteng, the committee found 3 500 firearm licences lying in a box, despite the huge backlogs which frustrated the public.
Officers at police stations often could not account for what work they did for the day. Firearm controls were practically non-existent. Belts, shoelaces and knives, among other suspect items, were found inside filthy cells – which the committee had to instruct the officers to clean, said Chikunga.
In the run-up to the World Cup last year, after having visited a police station in Mbombela, Chikunga said the committee had had to be “strategic” in its reports so as not to cast a bad light on the city by “making noise” about the state of the police stations.
“National police commissioner, I’ll ask again, why is it that this is found by politicians?
“How can it be that it takes politicians to make things correct? For goodness sake, it cannot be. We are politicians… not managers. It’s a bad habit of the SAPS to sign but not check,” said Chikunga.
Cele said “we are working to change what would have been tradition” by “visiting provinces and stations”, among other initiatives. He said the SAPS was now employing the principle of “not listening but seeing”.
The SAPS was making great strides in rural policing, with a focus not only on farmers but also the farmworkers. And the decrease in car hijacking was attributed to hard work by officers and the emphasis on visible policing, especially in Joburg, Pretoria and Durban, said Cele. “At no other stage has car hijacking been this low. We are not stolen cars collectors; we must arrest car thieves.”
Crowd control remained a “sensitive area”, and while police had to take responsibility to respect and uphold the right of protesters, the onus also rested on the organisers.
He said police had to work within the confines of the law and “can’t be trigger happy”, but that, as the management of the SAPS, they could not retreat from encouraging the police to protect themselves when going up against criminals.
“They don’t carry broomsticks and they don’t carry feather dusters – they carry serious weapons. We are not going to tell them (police officers) to go and kiss and hug them. They must work decisively,” he said.
Poor firearm control and the issues of the licensing of firearms and the number of escapes from police custody were of great concern to the committee.
The SAPS reported on Thursday that there were 468 escapes from police custody in the past financial year, while 191 detainees were unaccounted for.
The commissioner, who faces an inquiry into his conduct after the public protector found against him in the lease saga, said that with regard to firearm control there was a “major war point between us and the management of stations – it’s a big war”.
In an attempt to deal with the problem, the SAPS intended to establish “firearm banks”.