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It is now well recognised internationally that corruption is an occupational hazard facing all policing agencies. As far back as 1978 renowned policing academic Lawrence Sherman boldly stated that when it came to law enforcement, ‘Corruption is found in virtually all countries, in all forces, and at every level of the organisation at some time.’ The reason that corruption is a particular problem facing policing agencies is because of the inherent nature of the job. Police officials have more legal powers than ordinary citizens, are armed and trained in the use of force, typically operate with minimal supervision and therefore can exercise their discretion when to enforce the law or not.
This means that there will always be a certain number of police officials who for various reasons will use their formal policing powers for their own gain. This is the simplest definition of police corruption. The extent to which police officials engage in corruption is largely determined by organisational factors that are most influenced by senior police management. If the police leadership are determined to run a clean and effective policing agency, they will ensure strict selection and recruiting criteria, invest in appropriate training, implement practical performance management systems, establish effective accountability mechanisms and foster a professional ethos throughout the organisation. If, on the other hand, the police leadership are not able or willing to do these types of things, corruption is likely to become endemic throughout the law enforcement agency.
A recent report by Corruption Watch titled The Law for Sale details what many residents of South Africa’s largest city have known for some time; namely that corruption ‘is a routine aspect of the functioning of the JMPD’. Based on both primary and secondary research findings, the report highlights the extent to which corruption committed by the officials of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) has become an endemic and chronic problem. According to the report, one in four Johannesburg motorists have paid a bribe at some point and at least 50% of JMPD traffic policing officials are engaged in soliciting bribes.
Motorists who break the law are willing to pay bribes because it is cheaper and more convenient than paying a fine. The report indicates that poorer motorists and taxi drivers are soft targets due to the prevalence of unroadworthy vehicles or non-compliance with driver and vehicle licensing requirements. They are therefore more likely to pay a bribe rather than accept a fine. The impact of corruption is also reflected in the report, which found that on average, each JMPD member issues only four non-speeding infringement notices every three months. Consequently, many unroadworthy and unlicensed vehicles are able to stay on the roads, negatively impacting on the safety of all road users.
Generally, due to JMPD officials’ position of power, many people feel intimidated by them, which allows them to engage in corruption without fear of being reported. The lack of accountability by JMPD officials also allows some of them to commit more serious crimes such as sexual assaults, kidnapping and acts of violence. These types of incidents have eroded public trust in the JMPD.
The lack of willingness by the JMPD’s senior leadership to recognise the corruption problem is a big part of the reason it has become so widespread. The report cites JMPD Chief Chris Ngcobo, who stated in February 2011 that out of the 4 326 officers, the percentage of JMPD members involved in abusing their powers was around 10%. Even based on this estimate, indications are that the JMPD systems for identifying corruption are largely ineffectual given that only 184 cases of corruption were reported over the two years between 2009 and 2011. Furthermore, reporting corruption to the JMPD is hardly a deterrent given that in this time period, only 37 officers were found guilty and 19 were dismissed.
It needs to be understood that any system that relies on corruption being reported is bound to be ineffectual. Corruption involves two consensual parties and both are culpable of a serious crime. Therefore neither party has an interest in reporting the crime that they have just committed to the authorities. It is for this reason that in spite of the problem being large, the reporting rates are very low. Unfortunately, the JMPD leadership use the low number of reports to argue that there is not really a problem. More worryingly, they tend to blame corruption on the public, whom they accuse of bribing JMPD members. There is no doubt that the public would stop offering or paying bribes to JMPD officials if it resulted in their arrest on criminal charges of corruption.
With the right measures corruption can be reduced substantially in the JMPD. The Corruption Watch report presents a number of practical recommendations such as ensuring that members are identifiable at all times, proactive field inspections, the monitoring and tracking of vehicles, and field integrity tests.
Integrity testing proved particularly successful in tackling corruption in the New York City Police Department and can take several forms. This could involve an undercover agent going through a roadblock in an unroadworthy vehicle or without a driver’s licence to test the response of the JMPD members. This only need happen once a shift to create enough of a deterrent to stop police officials soliciting or accepting bribes. In addition, professional behaviour picked up by integrity tests could be used to support promotions or performance bonuses.
At the very least, members of the public and the JMPD need to be encouraged and be able to report any abuses of power or criminality without the fear of victimisation or reprisal. Reporting and feedback processes need to be user-friendly, confidential and backed up by thorough and timely investigations. The officers tasked with this job need to be selected from the best and most honest candidates and given adequate resources to do the job required.
The Corruption Watch report also recommends measures to discourage members of the public from paying bribes. Motorists and drivers need to be reminded that bribery is a criminal offence and that they risk arrest for attempting to bribe a police official.
Corruption is a global phenomenon from which no country and law enforcement agency is immune. If it goes unpunished, however, the Corruption Watch report warns that ‘… the message is that corruption is acceptable; and that it is a matter of indifference to government representatives. This undermines the credibility of the state system and of any aspirations towards advancing the rule of law.’
Corruption within the JMPD can be effectively reduced and with that will come safer roads for all users. The first step in getting there requires that the political leaders and senior officials of the City of Johannesburg and the JMPD acknowledge that there is a problem. Hopefully, the Corruption Watch report will spur the city’s leaders to action. If not, Johannesburg is unlikely to achieve its vision as a ‘world class city’.
This article was initially written for Corruption Watch and has been edited. The original appears on the Corruption Watch website
Written by Lizette Lancaster, Crime Hub Manager and Gareth Newham, Crime and Justice Programme Head, ISS Pretoria Office