Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS
Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS

The backlog of more than 280,000 cases at the SA Police Service (SAPS) forensic laboratories has been a “nightmare” for everyone relying on their services, police minister Bheki Cele conceded in parliament on Tuesday.

He apologised to all victims of crime “for the pain and anguish these delays have caused” and said the backlog is “unacceptable” and gave assurance that the problem is being addressed.

The four SAPS forensic laboratories are responsible for conducting DNA tests and profiling, which are often crucial to link crimes to their perpetrators. Without this evidence, prosecution cannot proceed.

Cele said that of the 280,291 backlogged cases, more than 60,000 have not yet been analysed; 36,626 are DNA-related and 82,000 related to gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide.

Cele was speaking at the end of an “urgent debate of national importance” in the National Assembly, that is, the DNA crisis within the SAPS, which was introduced by DA MP Andrew Whitfield who noted that the backlog had soared from just more than 7,000 in 2017/2018.

“Our goal is to bring normality back to the operations of the SAPS forensic laboratories within the next 18 months,” Cele said.

Part of the problem is corruption and some SAPS officials working in the laboratories and in supply chain management have been arrested and are in court on charges of corruption.

Also, from June 2020, there was no electronic track-and-trace functionality available due to the discontinuation of the IT system by the service provider. This meant tracking and tracing evidence could only be done manually, which saw a rapid build-up of the backlog as forensic analysts could only process a fraction of that done previously.

A new system with track-and-trace functionality is now fully operational and allows the laboratories to process 11,000 cases a week instead of the 1,000 when done manually.

Testing specimens for DNA also suffered a bottleneck due to a lack of kits. “This shortage was due to poor contract management in the SAPS,” Cele said. An urgent turnaround plan is being implemented. About 42% of dockets for crimes committed against women and children, outstanding for more than a year, have now been finalised.

All cases related to GBV and femicide are being prioritised based on guidance by the National Prosecuting Authority. A total of 77,485 such cases, which are court-ready but awaiting results from the forensic laboratories, are being processed, with more than 2,500 of such cases finalised so far.

An overhaul of the contract management system at the laboratories is under way, Cele told MPs, with long-term contracts being reviewed. Consumables, such as DNA kits, are being procured and the human capacity at the laboratories is being built up so that by the end of July there will be an additional 150 forensic analysts.

It is envisaged that 40% of the laboratory staff will be dedicated to addressing the backlog, and 60% new cases. “We are turning the tide,” Cele said.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za

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