In 2021, Viewfinder launched a Police Accountability Tracker. This dashboard made public the South African government’s database of tens of thousands of brutality complaints against the police. It also demonstrated the extent to which officers accused in violent crimes escape accountability. The tracker formed part of an ongoing, data-driven investigation titled “Above The Law” which – through a series of deeply reported exposés – uncovered the underpinnings of police brutality and non-accountability in South Africa. For instance, the investigation demonstrated how police management systemically exploited regulatory loopholes to protect colleagues accused of heinous crimes from consequence.
Published with some of SA’s biggest news titles, such as News24 and Carte Blanche, Viewfinder’s data analysis and investigative findings have precipitated steps within government to address the cover-up, whitewashing and manipulation inherent to police oversight and disciplinary processes. Parliamentarians cited Viewfinder’s findings in two meetings with the SAPS and IPID’s national management, leading police commissioner Khehla Sitole to admit that amendments to police discipline regulations were needed. The Civilian Secretariat for Police recently confirmed that it had started a review of discipline regulations with the intention of submitting recommendations to the Police Minister on how these need to be amended to address loopholes and vulnerabilities that Viewfinder’s launch exposé revealed. In October, the CSP confirmed that it had “completed” its analysis of police discipline regulations and had made a submission to the Police Minister, who must now take the matter further with the Safety and Security Sectoral Bargaining Council. In October, SAPS head office issued a circular warning police commanders throughout South Africa against using loopholes in the disciplinary system to cover for their violence accused colleagues. It is fair to surmise that Viewfinder’s findings and investigation was the direct inspiration behind this circular. In October, Viewfinder presented its findings at IPID’s national strategic planning meeting. During responses to this presentation, IPID’s director has committed to do more to ensure that the watchdog’s findings and disciplinary recommendations against police officers implicated in violent crimes take effect. She proposed to do this by advocating for more active participation by IPID in police disciplinary proceedings, which she acknowledges are bereft by “cronyism”. The discursive impact of the work is also evidenced by a few dozen TV and radio interviews on influential current affairs programs and extensive engagement with policy sector experts.
The data was cleaned and collated using Python and Jupyter notebooks.
Data visualisations and animations were produced on Adobe Creative Suite.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The development of the Police Accountability Tracker, the project’s data-driven findings and the “Above the Law” journalism series has been a work in progress since late 2018, around which time Viewfinder first engaged whistleblowers and submitted records requests for the complaints data of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). Since that time, Viewfinder has submitted many records requests, cultivated sources within the criminal justice system, investigated case studies and acquired dozens of further registers pertaining to complaints against the police and the progression of these cases through the police watchdog’s investigative pipeline. From the onset it was evident that these data represented a deep dysfunction within South Africa’s police oversight mechanisms, as evidenced by the high rates of killings and alleged violent crimes by police officers, contrasted with the low rates of criminal and disciplinary sanction in these cases.
In realising this project we experienced two big challenges. First, to ready the data for publication required the cleaning and collation of these dozens of registers into a single, coherent master database. This took an immense amount of time, finetuning, and problem-solving. Second, to render systems fuller understanding of the systems failure in police oversight, and to produce a coherent, popular narrative to communicate this to a broader audience the underpinnings and factors enabling the police brutality and impunity suggested by the data. Finally, investigating individual police officers – evidenced by the data as either repeat violent offenders or supervisors with a penchant for covering for their subordinates – carried with it tangible risks in a country where the lines between police and violent criminal enterprises are often blurred.
What can others learn from this project?
This project was foremost an exercise in investigative, impact-orientated, accountability journalism, though one inspired by- and contingent upon data.
The IPID complaints and case outcomes data provided Viewfinder with a tantalising indication of just how big a problem police brutality and police non-accountability had become in post-apartheid South Africa – one which we were able to quantify as stark whole numbers, ratios, proportions and trends. Yet, the facts and trends of police brutality and non-accountability held in the data was for us the premise of our investigation, not findings in and of themselves. Whenever we identified a trend or an anomaly arose from the data, conventional investigative methods took over and helped us learn and uncover the all-too human dysfunctions in the system which gave rise to these.
Also, our journalism recognised the immense human tragedy represented in the numbers. All the articles comprising this submission, foregrounded the pain, loss, injury and injustice experienced by poor, black and marginalised peoples in South Africa. The data demonstrated that these stories stood in as surrogates for tens of thousands of anonymous victims, and pressed home the public interest urgency of our project’s findings. In turn, we credit that urgency with the considerable impact that this project has had on the discursive and policy environment surrounding police brutality in South Africa.
As such, I believe that this project is an apt example of how data can integrate as a critical source into a much broader investigation and story-telling endeavour exposing systemic wrongdoing.