SAPS probes notorious cop and his former boss in test case for police accountability

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A screengrab from Viewfinder's production for Carte Blanche which aired on 30 January. Police commissioner Khehla Sitole has announced that departmental investigations are underway into Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels (right) and his former boss Athlone station commander Colonel Mark Adonis (left).

 

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has initiated a departmental investigation into the alleged involvement of Athlone police Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels in the torture and killing of 36-year-old Adam Isaacs.

Isaacs was arrested on suspicion of drug-related crimes by a team of police officers led by Gabriels, and backed up by the army, on 26 January 2020. He was admitted to hospital the following day, and died from blunt force trauma injuries ten days later.

SAPS is also now investigating the office of Gabriels’ former boss, Athlone station commander Colonel Mark Adonis, for failing to probe allegations that officers under his command participated in the fatal assault on Isaacs.

These departmental investigations were announced by police commissioner Khehla Sitole in response to a parliamentary question in January.

Sitole’s announcement follows a Viewfinder exposé of December last year, which questioned whether the police service had enabled Isaacs’ murder via its historical failure to properly discipline Gabriels, in spite of repeat Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) findings for assault against him. The article contained eye-witness allegations that Gabriels participated in a prolonged and brutal assault on Isaacs in the hours after his arrest. On Sunday, the exposé also aired as a segment on current affairs program Carte Blanche, produced by Viewfinder.

Contrary to the police’s relative inaction on the cases against Gabriels, prosecutors have charged him with two separate counts of “assault to do grievous bodily harm”. These prosecutions relate to cases which precede Isaacs’ arrest. Gabriels’ next court appearance is on 10 February in the Athlone Magistrates Court, where he stands accused of tripping and kicking a teenage girl in the stomach in November 2017.

On the night that Gabriels and his team arrested and allegedly tortured Isaacs, Gabriels was on a “final written warning” for assault. Such warnings are not “punitive” sanctions within the police, and are struck off an officer’s personnel file after six months. Still, if an officer commits a “similar act of misconduct” during the period that the warning is active, it should be taken into account as an aggravating factor in disciplinary proceedings.

Sitole confirmed that Adonis’ office did not investigate or act against Gabriels following Isaacs’s death in hospital. This meant Gabriels was not placed on suspension –- a precautionary measure against further misconduct — or subjected to a disciplinary hearing. In September 2020 the police service transferred Gabriels to Lamberts Bay.

Following the publication of Viewfinder’s article in December, community leaders in Lamberts Bay reached out to allege that Gabriels had fallen into a pattern of assaulting people there too.

In January last year, Dawid Hendricks, a handyman with the Cederberg Municipality, accused Gabriels and a colleague of attacking him and his children at their home in Lamberts Bay. The motivation for the alleged attack, says Hendricks, was the fact that he tried to drive to fetch his wife from a friend’s house after curfew time.

Lamberts Bay resident Dawid Hendricks, pictured here with his wife Sanna, accused Sergeant Giovanni Gabriels of assaulting him at his home in January 2020. (photo: Daneel Knoetze)

Hendricks reported that Gabriels choked and assaulted him. When his three children ran into the yard to protest the assault, Gabriels’ colleague pepper sprayed them, he said. IPID registered these complaints, but prosecutors eventually declined to take the cases forward in court. Hendricks, however, is appearing in court on charges of “obstructing” police duties and “assault”.

Another Lamberts Bay resident, Gayno Donn, says that Gabriels shot at him when he tried to flee a curbside confrontation with police in November 2020, and later beat him up at the police station. Donn did not report the case formally because, he says, he had no faith in the police station’s management to discipline Gabriels. He however gave a statement to Lamberts Bay community activist Enid Smith, who included his case in a complaint to Western Cape police management about Lamberts Bay police station. The complaint went unanswered, she says.

Viewfinder has also seen an affidavit by a police officer, a former colleague of Gabriels, which alleges that ill-discipline, brutality and petty criminality has become routine at Lamberts Bay police station. The officer, who has requested anonymity for fear of victimisation from Lambert Bay SAPS, singled out Gabriels in his affidavit.

“It is so clear that this member has anger issues and it is so unreal that this member was not charged disciplinarily or still has his hands on a police firearm,” it read.

The officer said he blamed the Lamberts Bay police station’s management for allowing discipline to deteriorate, by not taking steps against officers implicated in crimes and misconduct. The allegation is similar to the one now being investigated against Athlone station commander Colonel Mark Adonis.

Last year, an investigative series by Viewfinder exposed that such scenarios were common and rooted in systemic failures within police oversight. Loopholes in police discipline regulations, for instance, allowed station commanders to protect their colleagues accused of violence from consequences for their actions. Often, this occurred in spite of watchdog findings against accused officers.

If police disciplinary proceedings find Adonis guilty of misconduct due to his inaction following Isaacs’ death, it would represent a “significant” intervention by SAPS senior management in the day-to-day functioning of discipline enforcement within the service, said Sean Tait, the director of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum.

“It is unfortunate that SAPS management has to be put under significant pressure before intervening in situations like this,” he said.

“However, the problem … requires a systemic intervention from SAPS, the Ministry of Police and Civilian Secretariat for Police to prevent the repetition of scenarios where officers are de facto shielded from proper discipline and sanction.”

In October last year, police management went some way towards acknowledging the systemic failings of its disciplinary system when it issued a circular calling out police commanders’ “inaction” in the face of serious misconduct allegations against officers under them. The circular warned police supervisors and commanders that this sort of “inaction” constituted a form of misconduct.

Since issuing the circular, the police’s Divisional Head for Human Resources Management Lieutenant General Lineo Ntshiea has not responded to Viewfinder’s queries about the police’s plans for enforcement.

Statistics published in SAPS annual reports show that there has been a marked decline in the number of police disciplinary hearings held annually. This, while there has been no significant decline in the number of brutality and other misconduct complaints registered with police watchdog IPID.

Reported killings and brutality by police has remained relatively consistent in recent years, while the number of disciplinary hearings and convictions across all categories of misconduct have been declining steadily. (Data visualisation: Viewfinder).

 

The issue of poor disciplinary outcomes within the police was scrutinised in two dedicated sittings of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Policing last year. Ntshiea assured MPs that efforts were being made to improve the police’s disciplinary system. But, follow-up Viewfinder queries to SAPS requesting details and an update have consistently gone unanswered.

In October last year, the Civilian Secretariat for Police (CSP) responded to similar queries saying that it had conducted an “analysis” of police discipline regulations and “requested” police minister Bheki Cele to ensure that a review of the regulations are tabled at police’s bargaining council. 

Since then, the CSP has not responded to queries requesting further information on its “analysis” and “proposal” to the minister.

In January, queries were also submitted to police management, Lamberts Bay SAPS, Adonis, Gabriels, the police ministry and the police’s bargaining council. None were responded to.

The Isaacs family however reported to Viewfinder that a police Captain called at their house last week in apparent preparations for a disciplinary hearing for Gabriels and other Athlone officers accused of participating in the torture and killing of Adam Isaacs.

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