Are police adequately trained to handle abuse & rape cases?

Sanja Bornman, attorney for the Gender Equality Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, an independent human rights organisation, notes that while the police are trained in how to handle abuse cases, particularly when it comes to interacting with the victim of an attack, there are still problems that need to be overcome.

The training

Bornman reveals that police officers need various types of training to handle abuse cases. These include victim empowerment, to gender sensitisation, crime scene management, the handling of evidence, and of course a thorough knowledge of the laws that apply, particularly the Sexual Offences Act of 2007.

“The Act and its regulations, and the national instructions and standing orders that have been issued in terms of the Act, clearly set out the roles and responsibilities for police officers as first responders, and as investigators. However, ordinary police officers have often not even had sight of these documents, or an opportunity to study them thoroughly,” Bornman points out.

The Child Witness Institute is one of the bodies that trains police officers and other members of the judiciary in how to handle cases that involve children. “Our basic goal is to reform the criminal justice system, specifically in the area of sexual abuse against children so that justice can be served at the end of the day,” explains Karen Hollely, chief operating officer at the Child Witness Institute.

She reveals that the courses have been developed for each of the different role players who work within the criminal justice system. This includes things such as childhood development, sexual development, language, trauma impact and how children disclose abuse. The programmes are focused on training each of the discipline sectors in the specific fields they will need to be able to work with children.

“For example, for police it would be how to conduct a forensic interview with a child, taking into account child development, child language, and trauma. For the judiciary, it would be how to evaluate a child’s evidence, taking into account child development, child language, trauma, so all of those factors are then your core modules of learning for every single criminal justice system role player, and the outcome, the purpose of it is to ensure that every single one of those role players is specialised enough to work with a child, and that’s just the training side of the institute. The other side is our research. It is globally acknowledged that children have different functioning levels from adults, and as a result we have to do things differently with children in order for them to be the most effective that they can,” says Hollely.

Does the training work?

The big question is whether or not police officers are applying their training when they interact with the survivors of these incidents. Bornman says that research indicates that a large number of cases fall out of the system even before the trial phase. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this, Bornman believes that part of the problem is poor police work.

“Station and police culture, which is largely militaristic, also plays a significant role. Much of the way in which police officers do their jobs is dependent on the leadership they receive. A young officer may want to apply new skills, but can easily be shut down by a senior officer who believes in a different way of doing things,” adds Bornman.

Hollely points out that it is difficult to truly know if the training is working, and whether it is implemented properly. “I would love to say yes but I can’t. We only get them for a week, now I have to train them in a week, I have to train them on everything from child development to how to take a statement from a child. That is information overload. Our manuals are hundreds of pages long, so what the institute does is we have a number of courses. We have an introductory course where we throw everything at them at an introductory level, and know that they will probably take 30% away. That’s not a skills development course that is an awareness raising and paradigm shifting thing, because the other thing is I need to tell you why you need to know this.”

A paradigm shift is important, as Hollely highlights that bias is still an issue in society, among both men and women, where victim blaming can be common.

“We have huge myths and huge biases in this country. I actually had a case today where I got feedback from the court where a case was withdrawn because of exactly that perception that the girl went to the accused, she made herself available to him and then she cried rape at the end. I am of the belief that is not what happened, but that is the perception that is held by the people, and it’s still a huge battle to this day trying to get people to recognise that they have a bias and to address it. And there are lots of biases out there,” says Hollely.

Another issue that needs to be addressed through training is desensitisation. As the police, social workers and other members of the judiciary that interact with the survivors of these events can become numb to the feelings, needs and fears faced by the survivors.

“They hear these cases day-in, day-out, after a while you become numb, you become cynical, you become withdrawn, you become jaded and it is very difficult to persuade these people that these things are happening and they must take them seriously, because the courts or the criminal justice role players themselves are tired, they are emotionally tired, they can’t take anymore, and they get to that point where they stop caring. There is that side that we need to take into account as well,” explains Hollely.

Secondary victimisation

As mentioned above, bias plays a large role in how many of these cases are perceived and dealt with by the police and others involved.

“Secondary victimisation is rife, and investigations are often bungled. Police training is conducted on an ongoing basis, and much is made about the number of training sessions and the number of officers trained when SAPS reports to parliament. However, very little monitoring and analysis is done to ascertain the content, quality, and the impact of training,” explains Bornman.

Hollely stresses that the training offered by the Child Witness Institute aims to do away with secondary victimisation/traumatisation, which happens when the victim enters the system. Through adequate training, Hollely explains that the chances of those professionals involved in the case and investigation causing secondary trauma to the victim is reduced.

However, this is a continuous process, as new criminal justice professionals are constantly entering the system and need to be trained in how to manage these types of cases and interact with the survivors. There is also a need for those already trained in this to update their training and become familiar with any new skills, techniques or laws that are brought into place which may affect their work.

“There needs to be a lot more ongoing and intensive training in this specialised field. SAPS is very good at things like crime scene investigation, they are very good at training them on the instructions, they are very good at the everyday type of administration, but when it comes to this field, you need specialists who can train, and ongoing training, because this is difficult stuff to grasp. Even a prosecutor who has a law degree, they never do child development at varsity, they only do law subjects, so it is a complete foreign area, and they need to have continuous, updated training and skills development in order to do it properly,” stresses Hollely.

The cost of the training

Many government departments offer in house training, with the police services offering training in handling cases involving children and rape victims, however, Hollely states that this training is not adequate, as there is a misconception that anyone can offer this training, and that it is not only specialised organisations that focus on this field who can offer such training. However, the cost of hiring external people to training staff can be disagreeable to some government departments and other organisations.

Hollely explains that there is not a set cost for the training offered by the Child Witness Institute. Rather the cost is determined by the frequency with which the organisation hires the Child Witness Institute to carry out training, and the location. As it is based in Port Elizabeth, if the training is carried out there it will be cheaper than if tutors are called to Johannesburg or another city.

However, regardless of the cost of training or who carries it out, Bornman believes that training alone is not good enough. “Proper indicators for the success and impact of training should be in place from the start. Police officers should be held accountable for non-compliance with their duties and service standards, and survivors must have access to information about how to lodge service complaints. Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences units should be regulated by specific law, so that their functioning is supported, resourced, and made sustainable. Sufficient resources should be allocated to the police generally, and strategies must be put in place for dealing with high caseloads, delays, language barriers and the lack of accessibility to trained police officers.”