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‘Problem officers’ in Mashatile’s VIP protection unit likely to get away with slap on wrist, say experts

For years members of the “blue light brigade” have been accused of aggressive driving and disregarding traffic laws, creating hazardous situations for other road users.

These police protection units, which transport top government officials, are equipped with flashing blue lights and sirens to ease their way through traffic on roads and major highways. They’re regularly accused of speeding, tailgating, overtaking recklessly and intimidating other drivers.

Ten years ago, the SAPS VIP Protection Unit tasked with protecting former president Jacob Zuma was accused of assaulting a journalist outside the late president Nelson Mandela’s home in Houghton, Johannesburg.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Blue Light Brigade: The president’s bullies assault journalist

At times the actions of such police protection units have resulted in serious injuries and fatalities. Incidents that made the headlines include:

•   A 2015 crash involving the then state security minister David Mahlobo’s blue light convoy near Witbank in which a young man was killed;
•   The death of an elderly pedestrian who was run over by a police officer driving a car that was part of  former deputy president David Mabuza’s VIP convoy in May 2017; and
•   A 2011 crash involving former Gauteng local government and housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi’s official vehicle, which left West Rand schoolboy Thomas Ferreira permanently brain-damaged.

In 2022, the Automobile Association (AA) called out the blue light brigade for their bullying tactics, which pose a road safety threat to motorists.

“We noted then, as we do again here, that anecdotal evidence points to members screaming at other motorists, showing their firearms to other motorists to intimidate them, and generally being belligerent when on the road. The incident captured on video is another example of a unit acting above the law,” said AA CEO Willem Groenewald on Tuesday.

A vicious assault

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) announced on Tuesday it is investigating allegations of assault against members of the SAPS’s Protection and Security Services (PSS) unit who are part of Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s security detail after a video circulated showing armed officers attacking three civilians on what appeared to be the N1 highway on Monday.

Read more in Daily Maverick: IPID to probe vicious assault on motorists by Paul Mashatile’s security unit as rage ignites across SA
The video depicted armed members of the unit — who were driving a black BMW — dragging a person to the edge of the highway before punching and kicking him on the ground. According to reports, the victims were military trainees and they gave statements to Ipid on Tuesday.
SAPS has stated that the officers involved will be subject to “internal processes”. According to a report, the SAPS officers involved have been issued with notices of suspension.

Lack of accountability

“What should happen now is that the offending officers should be immediately suspended, their firearms taken away and SAPS institutes an ‘expeditious’ disciplinary process that’s allowed for — in the 2016 SAPS disciplinary regulations — exactly these kinds of cases, where the police have acted criminally in a high-profile incident,” said Gareth Newham, a policy expert at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS).

“In a case like this, they should get an independent chairperson for the disciplinary process because the disciplinary process of the police has deteriorated substantially over the five years to a point that it is hardly holding police officials accountable.

“The system is operating at a much lower capability — the most likely outcome of these disciplinary hearings are written or verbal warnings and the least [frequent] outcome is dismissal recommendations.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Paul Mashatile VIP assault highlights police protection an expensive excuse for thuggery and vanity
David Bruce, an independent researcher on policing and an ISS consultant, said, “Whatever process is implemented, it would seem that on the basis of the evidence available, some of the officers would face a high risk of being found guilty of misconduct.

“One would like to think that, if found guilty, they would be dismissed, as this kind of behaviour is clearly not appropriate for someone who is a member of the SAPS. However, the SAPS frequently imposes very light sanctions on members who are found guilty of assault, and even assault [with intent to do] grievous bodily harm.”

He continued: “A further question relates to what is likely to be the role of Ipid. The SAPS might choose to ‘hand the matter over’ to Ipid, in which case Ipid will be responsible both for making recommendations on a disciplinary process and on possible criminal charges.

“This is unlikely to make much of a difference to the eventual outcome. If one believes that there is a good chance of a guilty finding against some of the members, the court would also be likely to impose a very light sanction.”
According to research from Viewfinder, an accountability journalism project, only a fraction of cases against police that are reported to Ipid result in dismissals or criminal convictions.
Read more in Daily Maverick: New police accountability tracker casts intense light on brutality of officers

Overhauling SAPS

Bruce says relying on disciplinary and criminal processes against individual police officers to address abuse is largely ineffective. He said if the police were serious about addressing this kind of behaviour it would replace the divisional PPS commissioner in charge of the VIP protection unit and conduct a review of the conduct of the members implicated in this case.

“Members who are involved in this kind of egregious violence are typical ‘problem officers’ who are repeatedly linked to assaults and other abuses. The SAPS approach to dealing with these members should be based on a broader assessment of their conduct, and not just this single incident,” he said. DM