Police failing domestic abuse victims? Counting the costs of SAPS non-compliance

For the past three reporting periods between 2016 and March 2018, not a single police station visited by the SAPS’ Civilian Secretariat has fully complied with the Domestic Violence Act. In terms of this Act, the SAPS must report biannually to Parliament on complaints received against police officers who don’t properly implement the Act and the steps taken against them. Beyond the grim nature of domestic-violence statistics, the costs of non-compliance are often high and can have life-or-death consequences on a victim.

Seated for lunch in the Cape Town CBD, Henrietta du Preez (37) insists that she’s not “a broken person”. “I’m not a victim. I can say I am grateful; I survived. My life was literally like a horror movie, but I made it out. Not many women are that lucky.”

For seven years, Du Preez suffered physical, emotional and verbal abuse from her fiancé, and she has more than one protection order to show for it. What she calls the “paper trail of the abuse” is spread out on the table in front of her. “I kept everything. No one can accuse me of lying.” Back then her fiancé was a police officer. He is still on active duty. According to the SAPS report for the period April 2017 to September 2017 tabled in Parliament earlier this year, 117 police officers at 91 police stations countrywide were investigated as alleged perpetrators of domestic violence. In only 47 cases, the officers’ firearms were seized. None of them were found guilty; instead, they received sanctions ranging from verbal to written warnings.

Du Preez recalls the first time she laid a complaint at a police station. “I spoke to a female captain because I thought it would be easier to speak to another woman, but she just told me the member (he) must come and say he has a problem. So, nothing happened. There was a time after I had left him when he wanted to cut me with blades, so I ran to the police station. They didn’t even make an entry. They (police) just came to my place and took him home. He was still allowed to carry his firearm.”

Getting away however, was not easy.

When she could finally muster the courage to leave him, she did so with her infant twins, her other infant son and a 5kg bag of butternut in a baby stroller. “I was desperate, but he always found me and told people I kidnapped his children. One Sunday I was on my way home from church, and in broad daylight he tried to run me over with the police van. He would then rally members of the community to help put me in the van and would threaten to crash the van if I didn’t say I loved him.”

Her fiancé did go for training on domestic violence whilst they were together, she recalls. “Back then I thought to myself, if he could do this to me despite training, what is he doing to other people?” Du Preez says she still gets physically sick whenever she sees a police van or a blue police uniform. “The police must understand that a woman will not reach out for help if she does not need it. By the time she does, she is too desperate to consider what other people may may think of her. There is still that stigma, you know?” Du Preez pauses before continuing. “The police are often biased. When it is a guy in blue, they don’t want to touch him. I had to fight my way to the top to be heard. It was only when I approached the provincial commissioner’s office that they intervened and investigated. It should not be that difficult. When women reach out, they (police) should not make it worse. It is not like they say on their pamphlets. They need to understand that how they treat a person can help save or end a life.”

Du Preez says that in her view, the law needs to change. “The police do not handle domestic violence as a crime, and they should. Do you know how many times I thought to myself, does my life matter? And it does. It does. I was ready to give up, but then I chose to fight.” After incidents with family and her fiancé showing up and verbally abusing her at other places she lived, she eventually found refuge in a shelter for abused women last year. “The shelter was my second chance at life,” she says. “I got the support I needed. Before I was very private, but by the grace of God, I found the courage to break the silence. I got the healing I needed. Many women in relationships like mine end up dead, but I told myself that I wouldn’t end up that way.”

And so it was: she did not “end up that way”.

Du Preez has since moved out of the shelter and is currently completing an internship in clothing design. She is also involved in youth programmes in her community and mentorship for young boys. “I have daughters. One day I want them to be in healthy stable relationships, so I will work for that — mentoring one boy at a time.”

Meanwhile, MPs in Parliament this past week grilled top SAPS officials over the damning statistics of a police service battling to fulfil its responsibilities as required by the Act. MPs raised serious concerns over the high levels of non-compliance. This non-compliance ranges from failing to arrest an alleged perpetrator to failure to serve a protection order and failure to seize a firearm – all issues to which Du Preez can attest.  ANC MP Livhuhani Mabija and DA MP Karen Jooste questioned if SAPS is serious about acting against their own members given that there are so few disciplinary cases. EFF MP Phillip Mhlongo accused SAPS of “rewarding evil within themselves by defending each other.” Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, Francois Beukman, in turn proposed that station commanders (and not just individual officers) “bear the ultimate consequences” for non-compliance. This prompted deputy national commissioner for crime detection Lieutenant General Jacob Tsumane to acknowledge that statistics must improve. “We take note of that,” he conceded. Tsumane also stated that the sanctions against officers should reflect the seriousness of the issue. He also said the monitoring systems for these cases need to be revisited.

ParlyBeat spoke to some gender activists who believe that more should be done than just “taking note.” Lisa Vetten proposes a system for intimate femicide case reviews. Vetten is of the view that it is important to understand when and why the objects of the Act fail. She suggests that a femicide review panel consisting of diverse experts in domestic violence and SAPS representatives review these cases to understand the police’s role and how femicide can be prevented. So, when someone is killed whilst being in possession of or having applied for a protection order, such a review process kick in immediately.

Project manager specialising in violence against women at the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Claudia Lopes, told ParlyBeat that it is worrying to see the rate of violence against women and children increasing exponentially, while police stations still do not comply with a law enacted 20 years ago. According to Lopes, various issues contribute to this. “Training periods are too short and often ineffective. Cases where police officers themselves are perpetrators of violence against women show that there is inadequate screening before appointments. The desensitised responses to women reporting cases is potentially indicative of patriarchal mindsets, but also likely due to inadequate debriefing. Psychological debriefing of police officers should be compulsory, not voluntary,” she argues.

By Alicestine October

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