Three months ago the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (better known as the ‘Hawks') was formally launched. The Hawks replaced the Scorpions as South Africa's premier criminal investigation unit and in so doing assumed custodianship of millions of citizens' hopes in the struggle against crime.
Following months of opposition to the disbandment of the Scorpions, the period since its closure has been characterized by a quiet acceptance of the new body, despite limited understanding of its structure. However, newspapers recently reported that the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) is investigating members of the unit over allegations of torture. The individuals implicated form part of a group of 14 fingered in a separate investigation involving alleged torture and murder earlier this year. Such accusations pose a threat to the integrity of the unit, and to citizens' faith in it. But things are not as clear as they seem.
The 14 ‘Hawks' accused of murder and torture are members of the Bellville South Organised Crime unit in Cape Town. One of the arguments for locating the Hawks within the SAPS was that the Scorpions (who fell under the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development) duplicated the work of SAPS organized crime units. With the establishment of the Hawks, all organized crime units have become components of the Hawks. Members of former SAPS organized crime units (as well as the commercial crime and hi-tech units) are in the process of being vetted for full membership of the unit. Until mid-2010 when this vetting is due to be completed, members have been given one-year provisional contracts with the Hawks. If a serving member of an existing organized crime unit does not pass the vetting process in the coming year, s/he can be redeployed within the SAPS but may not serve within the Hawks. Barring failure of vetting, organized crime members can look forward to a future in the new unit.
This recruitment process deglamorises the Hawks to an extent. Rather than building the unit from scratch through targeted recruitment and head hunting, it appears the SAPS is simply reshuffling its administrative structures to group old units under a new name. While this is certainly a practical approach, it raises questions about how different the SAPS will be once the Hawks is fully established. In light of the accusations of torture and murder made against the organized crime members, it also raises questions about the future integrity of the new unit.
The SAPS Amendment Act of 2008 under which the Hawks is established, makes provisions aimed at ensuring the integrity of members. Section 17(e) of the Act sets out clear guidelines and provisions regarding ‘Security screening and integrity measures' to be applied to members of the unit. These include:
* Security screening in accordance with the National Strategic Intelligence Act
* Periodic disclosure of financial and other interests (including those of immediate family members)
* Random integrity, drug and alcohol testing
These measures represent important additions to the SAPS Act, and ones worth considering for application to all members of the police service (although this would be extremely costly, and time and resource intensive). Applied correctly they could serve as important barriers to would-be Hawks bent on abusing their positions. But these measures in themselves may not be sufficient to ward off the kinds of abuses allegedly committed by some Bellville South organized crime members. Torture and other illicit forms of interrogation have over the years been more commonly associated with specialised units like organized crime or the former murder and robbery units, than with regular detectives. Breaking patterns of illicit interrogation or excessive use of force that may have developed within these units will be difficult, especially if entire units are transplanted into the Hawks structure.
If the 14 accused ‘Hawks' committed their alleged acts of torture and murder it was at a time when they were still regular SAPS members, they were ‘police'. Dressing up such a unit with a new name and logo will not change its culture. Emerging from the lingering shadow left by the Scorpions, the Hawks cannot afford to let South Africans down. Too much hope is vested in their success, which must include their maintaining an unblemished image.
Members of the Scorpions were on rare occasions exposed dabbling in corrupt matters, but they were never shown to be torturers or murderers. Provisions in the SAPS Amendment Act of 2008 should help prevent acts of corruption by Hawk members. They won't however put an end to entrenched practices of torture or abuse if they exist within some organized crime units. Instead it will be up to the unit's leaders to establish a culture of integrity where well resourced, intelligence driven investigations replace any brute force techniques, and the Hawks secure their place as South Africa's new crime busting heroes.
Written by: Andrew Faull, Researcher, Crime & Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria