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Are over 4,000 officers convicted criminals? South African police ‘still checking’

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  • A photo circulating on Facebook claims that over 4,000 members of the South African police are convicted criminals.

  • In April 2019, a “quick identity check” revealed that 4,174 police officers had criminal records but the police say this figure still needs to be verified.

  • The police department is in the process of taking the fingerprints of all 192,000 members to get a more accurate figure.

A photo being shared on Facebook shows a crowd of people saluting, dressed in the navy-blue uniform of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Their faces have been blurred.

“Over 4,000 SA police members are convicted criminals,” the caption reads.

Criminality within South Africa’s police ranks often makes headlines. But are over 4,000 officers – who would be expected to uphold the law – convicted criminals? We checked. 

Police minister released number

During a parliamentary question and answer session in April 2019, police minister Bheki Cele said that 4,174 members of the police service had criminal records. This included 32 senior managers.

A breakdown of the figure by division and province was included in Cele’s written reply and published by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, a South African organisation that records parliamentary committee proceedings.

It showed that most of the offences were traffic violations. Others were more serious, including assault, theft, kidnapping and fraud.

Number not ‘confirmed’

Africa Check contacted police national spokesperson Vish Naidoo to find out more about the figure.

“When the question was raised in Parliament, we did a quick ID [identity] check on all the members and according to the IDs, it came up that about 4,000 members had criminal records,” he said. “But that is not a confirmed figure.”

The initial ID check may not have produced accurate figures, due to duplication or misidentification. “So it could be more or it could be less,” Naidoo said.

The only way to get an accurate number is by taking the fingerprints of all SAPS members. “The process has started where we are checking every single member on their fingerprints, but this will take some time,” Naidoo said. “I mean, we are talking about more than 192,000 members.”

The department says it hopes to complete the process by the end of 2020.

What does it mean to have a criminal record?

“Having a criminal record is the same as having been found guilty or convicted of a crime, which is the same as being a convicted criminal,” Anine Kriegler, researcher with the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town, told Africa Check.

Some cases, particularly traffic offences, would not go to trial but would be settled through an admission of guilt fine, she said. However, depending on the seriousness of the traffic offence, an admission of guilt could still land you in the police’s criminal record centre database.

A police officer who commits a crime may also face an internal disciplinary process, through the SAPS discipline regulations. Naidoo said that there were police members currently facing internal disciplinary actions for more serious offences but he would not discuss the details due to privacy concerns.

Conclusion: Police currently verifying members’ records

A picture circulating on Facebook claims that over 4,000 South African police officers are convicted criminals. National police spokesperson Vish Naidoo told Africa Check that in April 2019, a “quick ID check” revealed that 4,174 police officers had criminal records.

But this figure has not been confirmed. The department is in the process of taking the fingerprints of all its members to get an accurate figure. The final figure could be more or less than the 4,000 figure cited in the Facebook post.

Since the accuracy of the available data is in question, we rate the claim as unproven. We will update this report with the confirmed estimate when it is released by the police. 

Additional research by Butchie Seroto

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