The importance of police oversight

What is police oversight? Police officers are not above the law. They work and live by the same laws that they are required to uphold.

The police have an important role to play in detecting and investigating crime. Officers are given special powers to stop and search people, to arrest and detain suspects, and to use force.

However, South African law puts limits on the circumstances in which the police have the authority to use these powers. These limits protect the rights of suspects, the community and the police. Limitations placed on the authority of the policy include that:

  • force is only used when strictly necessary;

  • lethal force is only used in self-defence or in the defence of others; and

  • decisions to stop, search, arrest and detain are only made when consistent with the law and not based on discrimination of any kind.

The police are also prohibited from using torture, engaging in acts of corruption, and abusing power. They have a duty to treat suspects, witnesses and victims with dignity and respect.

Who keeps a check on the actions of the police?

South Africa has several agencies to receive complaints and make investigations if police officers act unlawfully or unreasonably. Some agencies – like the Western Cape Police Ombudsman, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Civilian Secretariat of Police (the Civilian Secretariat), the Public Protector, and the Public Service Commission – have the power to receive complaints and investigate police misconduct. Others, such as the Parliamentary Police Portfolio Committee, can deal with recurring concerns about police performance in their regular reviews of police annual reports and budgets.

This provides information about the Western Cape Police Ombudsman and other agencies with the power to receive and investigate complaints against the police.

Together, these oversight agencies work to ensure that police officers do not take advantage of their position of power by breaking the law, acting unreasonably, or discriminating against any person for any reason. If the police are accountable, and illegal or unreasonable activities by the police are detected, punished and corrected by these agencies, it will promote community confidence in the police.