On 2 October 2016 the police arrested Alfred Thompson, a 54-year-old man, for being “drunk in public” in Vredendal in the Western Cape. It was recorded in the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s (IPID) register that Thompson “did not wake up” when officers came to release him the next morning. According to this register, Thompson died in the town hospital soon after. Three weeks later an IPID investigator changed the status of the case from “active” to “complete” on the case management system.
There was just one problem: the investigation was not complete. The case file was missing a compulsory document upon which the completion of any “death in police custody” investigation hinges: a post-mortem report.
In May the following year, the Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA) alerted IPID head office to this fact. IPID Western Cape head Thabo Leholo admitted the “error” and explained that the case worker had established that Thompson had sustained injuries before he was detained. IPID later included the post-mortem report in the case file.
The case demonstrates that IPID investigators may bring cases to “completion” while sidestepping compulsory procedures. In theory, the “completed” status means that a “quality investigation” was done. Such cases should then be handed over to state prosecutors for a “decision” about whether or not to prosecute the police officers involved. As such, completed cases are also known as “decision ready”.
In Thompson’s case, the investigator approved the “completion” of a case in which he was also the case worker. This was prohibited by procedural safeguards.
Last month, Viewfinder published whistleblower reports and other evidence which showed that such shortcuts were systemic, widespread across South Africa and had evolved over many years. The practice amounted to an obstruction of justice for victims of violent crimes by police officers such as rape, torture, assault and killings. These victims are often from poor and vulnerable communities.
IPID was due to present its response at a meeting with Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing last week. The committee is chaired by Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
But instead IPID discussed an internal investigation which focused on a relatively small sample of cases. Management acknowledged that these cases, dubbed “special closures”, were tainted by claims of fraud and manipulation. But there was no reference to allegations that “decision ready” cases – like the one of Thompson’s death in custody – were also manipulated.
When challenged on this omission, IPID’s national head of investigations Matthews Sesoko implored the committee to trust in the directorate’s reported performance of “decision ready” cases. He said that the Auditor-General vetted these performance statistics and, as such, they were accurate.
Viewfinder has established that the Auditor-General does, however, not look at all the case files that IPID report as “decision ready”. Year on year, the Auditor-General will only analyse samples from select provinces.
Viewfinder has reviewed the Auditor-General’s findings on IPID’s statistics for 2016/17. He warns of a potential “overstatement of decision ready cases” and concludes that “management should revisit the entire population of decision ready cases and ensure corrections” to avoid overstating performance statistics. IPID did not respond to Viewfinder’s queries as to whether it complied with this recommendation. But, with 3449 case files in the “entire population of decision ready cases”, compliance seems unlikely.
The Auditor-General also warned that cases described as decision ready might not meet “the requirements as per the Standard Operating Procedures” because all the necessary evidence might not have been obtained. This might also result in an overstatement of performance, the Auditor-General concluded.
Viewfinder’s first article exposed one such “decision ready” case. The 2015 death of 17-year-old Austin Goliath in a Piketberg police cell was included in performance statistics. Yet compulsory documentation was outstanding.
IPID management has been aware of the whistleblower reports published by Viewfinder for years. Some whistleblowers have alleged that management encouraged the manipulation of the data, in a scramble to meet statistical report deadlines.
This year, former executive director Robert McBride also said at the Zondo Commission that reports of improved performance at IPID, during his suspension in 2015 and 2016, were a “blatant lie”.
However, IPID management confirmed to the committee last week that the investigation into the period of McBride’s suspension did not extend to “decision ready” cases. IPID management did not tackle findings that statistical manipulation was systemic, and widespread across South Africa. Instead, the presentation focused on a relatively small sample of cases that were, according to whistleblowers, fraudulently closed.
Some members of the committee picked up on this omission. The DA’s Andrew Whitfield asked why this internal investigation had looked only at a select number of “closed” cases and not also at “decision ready” cases. Whitfield pointed to IPID’s main performance target: a quantitative measure of “decision ready” cases. This, he said, may have created an “unintended incentive to push through” poorly investigated cases to “decision ready” status.
In spite of this and calls from other MPs for an independent investigation into the cover-up, committee chair Joemat-Pettersson indicated that she will not take direct action to hold IPID accountable.
However, in spite of the narrow scope, IPID reported that the investigation had indeed uncovered cases that were closed without proper investigation. This is a break with IPID’s former position: that management had seen “no evidence” of statistical manipulation during the 2015/16 financial year.
In a recent written response to questions, Joemat-Pettersson said that the committee was “happy” with IPID’s presentation, and that IPID would “periodically update the committee on progress of the investigation and impact of intervention measures.” The specifics of these “intervention measures” remain unclear.
To date, IPID management has ignored queries from Viewfinder. Joemat-Pettersson also failed to respond to a request for an interview for her to elucidate why she thinks that the committee need not take direct action in relation to the cover-up at IPID.