Phiyega under the cosh

PHILANI NOMBEMBE and NASHIRA DAVIDS | 2013-03-05 00:14:13.0

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega is under fire in the wake of a series of high-profile policing disasters.

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In the latest setback to hit the police, it emerged yesterday that its top brass ignored repeated requests for urgent meetings to discuss a critical shortage of DNA kits used to collect forensic evidence from rape victims - a failure that could lead to rapists walking free.

More than seven months ago, the Department of Health's forensic pathology service in Gauteng raised as a matter of urgency the shortage of DNA and sexual assault kits - crucial in criminal investigations.

The service is believed to have had difficulty in securing meetings with Gauteng provincial deputy police commissioner Major-General Pumza Gela to resolve the rape-kit crisis.

Yesterday, The Times revealed that police stations, especially in Gauteng and North West, were running out of the kits, which are used to collect DNA forensic evidence from rape victims. It was also reported that expired kits were being used.

Intensifying the pressure on Phiyega, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils called on President Jacob Zuma to sack her and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa in the wake of debacles such as the Marikana massacre and last week's horrific killing of Mozambican taximan Mido Macia.

On the shortage of DNA and sexual assault kits, Kasrils told The Times: "I think it is indicative of the confusion and the incompetence reigning within the police force.

"How could they allow this to descend to such a chaotic situation? Where is administration and management in this regard?

"I think it all points to an absolute situation of grave crisis and we need a major turnaround."

The parliamentary portfolio committee on policing has written to Phiyega about the kits.

"This is totally unacceptable and we strongly condemn the shortage of these kits. The high incidence of rape around the country makes the situation untenable and we urge the commissioner to resolve this," said acting committee chairman Annelize van Wyk.

In an e-mail, seen by The Times and dated January 30, Jaco Louw, deputy director of the forensic pathology service in Pretoria, highlights the difficulties the service is facing as a result of the shortage of DNA rape kits.

Louw wrote: "The absence of these items [rape kits] opens huge loopholes in terms of control over evidence and the chain of custody of evidence, resulting in suspects walking free."

The forensic pathology service in Gauteng has for months been struggling because it has not received the kits from investigating officers.

In Western Cape, kits were taken from police stations that had some to spare.

In his e-mail to various Gauteng officials, Louw spells out how bad the situation is.

He said the shortage of kits was discussed at a "strategic meeting on July 12" and that at the time the "urgency of the matter was also raised".

"Despite meetings with police cluster commanders, our facilities still do not receive DNA kits or sexual assault kits from investigating officers as part of the pathologists' postmortem procedures."

Louw wrote that pathologists currently collect blood for DNA analysis in tubes but this was "not accepted by the SAPS forensic science laboratory as they prescribe a specific type of DNA kits".

"The result is that refrigerators at the facilities are overstocked with DNA blood samples, not collected by the SAPS because they cannot utilise [them]."

In addition to the shortage of DNA kits, Louw said evidence bags required by the police were not available, resulting in crime-scene evidence not being adequately protectively sealed.

Louw asked that the issue be tackled during the next o perational meeting and "strongly suggested" a meeting with Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant-Colonel Mzwandile Petros.

When contacted for comment yesterday, Louw would only say: "Just ignore that please. That was not intended for you."

Simon Zwane, spokesman for the Gauteng health department, referred all queries to the police.

National police spokesman Brigadier Phuti Setati said the police were aware of the shortage of kits at "some police stations" but, he said, there was an oversupply in some provinces.

"As a result, we have embarked on a process of redistribution of the forensic kits to where shortage is being experienced," said Setati.

A new supplier of the kits was appointed in December and Setati said the existing kits will "last until the new stock is delivered" this month.

Setati denied that expired kits were being used.

Spokesman for the department of health in Western Cape Faiza Steyn said that, despite the shortage of kits, tests were still being done.

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