The trouble with living in a police state... (19.8.2011)

Gareth Stokes

South Africa is not a police state, yet. But in recent months we’ve witnessed some alarming developments. It started with the re-militarisation of police ranks and the immediate transition of our National Police Commissioner into a General… Why the change? The decision certainly undid much of the progress made in changing the country’s police “force” into a police “service”. Perhaps “General” holds more weight in a continent where those who control the guns usually outlast those who don’t. Whatever the case… Since General Bheki Cele’s metamorphosis he has issued the “shoot to kill” instruction on numerous occasions. He attends as many funerals of his fallen comrades as he possibly can and has made sure that the media spotlight falls on the number of police killed in action in South Africa each year.

It seems as if the General is using police deaths to motivate – or even justify – his “shoot now ask questions later” policing technique. But his claims of an all out war against the police are misleading. Carte Blanche – an investigative television show – reports that the scourge of police officers being killed has decreased dramatically since 1994: “In 1994, 265 police officers were killed, according to the South African Institute for Race Relations figures. In 2000, this number dropped to 178, and in 2010 it had fallen to 93, according to police statistics.” And at 2 August 2011 the Sowetan reports 57 police deaths year-to-date, suggesting the declining trend will continue.

The innocent victims of “shoot to kill” policing

The “shoot to kill” stance is wrong on a number of levels. First – it elevates the life of a police officer above the life of an ordinary citizen. The number of South Africans murdered year-to-date August is well above the 57 brave police officers who gave their lives… Why should the General not shed tears for victims of crimes? And second – it leads to excessive force. A dangerous nonchalance develops when you interact with the public from a position of ultimate power. Instead of tackling each situation on its merits police have been goaded into striding forward, guns loaded (or blazing) without a care for citizens’ rights. Cases of police brutality – although dismissed by Cele as isolated – are mounting.

Andries Tatane lost his life – allegedly at the hands of the police – during protests in Ficksburg on 13 April 2011. And on April 26 Janet Odendaal was shot dead, allegedly by a police sergeant, after she crashed into a police van outside the Kempton Park police station. If these were indeed isolated events, then the Independent Complaints Directorate (IDC) wouldn’t be saying that “killings by police in shooting incidents have escalated dramatically in recent years!” Their statistics confirm that such incidents have reached their highest levels since 1997. Under the heading “persons shot dead by police” the IDC reports 282 deaths in the 2005/6 year growing to 568 deaths in 2008/9 and 524 deaths the year after. A total of 65 innocent bystanders have been shot by police over the past five years.

In a Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) submission to The Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development regarding the Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill, 39 of 2010 the CSVR concludes: “These figures, together with figures on complaints of serious non-fatal violence by police, which according to ICD statistics have increased dramatically in recent years, suggest strongly that there is a problem of the control of the use of deadly force by police in South Africa and that the SAPS is currently not exercising proper control over the use of lethal and other force by its members!” They are hard at work to prevent changes to the bill which would enable police officers to use more “lethal force”.

He who laughs last...

South Africa isn’t the only country struggling with law and order issues. Large scale rioting and looting in isolated areas in the UK drew many glib comments from local commentators. A closer look at the goings on during the riots and handling of events thereafter, shows marked differences between policing in the UK and back home. South Africa’s riot police – and we’re not talking here about ordinary officers who typically stand by while rioters trash our streets – tend to be fairly confrontational. They fire rubber bullets, teargas and other anti crowd rounds with gay abandon. Contrast this with comments from a UK policeman (posted on an online chat site): “Why the hell would I fire an AEP round (baton gun) in a riot situation? If it goes even slightly wrong and somebody is killed (and it will happen – that 41mm piece of hard plastic can kill you easily) then I will receive no support from the media, politicians, senior police officers or ill-informed members of the public!” Members of the UK police service have a greater appreciation of the consequences of their action – and show more restraint because of this.

Once the UK enforcement agencies got a handle on the situation they swung into action quickly and efficiently. Within hours of the unrest – the morning after – the Nottinghamshire Police said 84 people have been arrested, Merseyside Police (Liverpool) arrested 50 people for public disorder, and nine were arrested in Gloucester. Another 15 arrests were made by the Thames Valley Police along with 768 arrests and 105 charges laid by the Metropolitan Police! And they brought in 10, 000 extra police officers to avoid further violence.

In the immediate aftermath of the unrest UK prisons were full – with courts operating 24-hours to process the larger case load. We’ve spent some time in the UK and we’re pretty sure most of the perpetrators will get off with little more than a scolding… But aside from this leniency, that’s what swift justice should look like! And that’s the kind of response we’d like to see from local police… Trouble makers rounded up – without a shot being fired – and having their day in court almost immediately!

Editor’s thoughts: Any death among members of South Africa’s police services is one too many. But fighting fire with fire isn’t always the answer. By encouraging a cavalier “shoot to kill” attitude General Cele is creating conditions that are conducive to more rather than less deaths. Do you think the SAPS can do its job without a “shoot to kill” mandate? Add your comment below, or send it to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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