SA cops urged to 'aim for the head'

A shoot-to-kill call by a top South African law enforcement officer has fuelled a debate on how far police can go to defend themselves in one of the world’s most crime-ridden societies.

In a country where about 50 citizens are murdered every day, Bheki Cele, minister for community safety in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, struck a chord by saying: “Once criminals pull their guns, police should aim for the head.”

But after eight criminals were shot dead and a ninth was left fighting for his life within 10 days of his comments at a prayer meeting, questions are being asked.

“The figure is high considering that we are not talking countrywide, we are talking about one province,” said Dikeledi Phiri, national spokesperson for the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD).

“It means something must have sparked this high rate. Definitely, we will be investigating.”

A total 621 people died at the hands of police in all nine provinces in the 12 months ending on March 31, mostly in shoot-outs during robberies.

Shareen Lakhi-Hatia, provincial head of the ICD in KwaZulu-Natal, said it was important to understand the pressure on police in such a violent country.

“KZN has always been a province with a high number of police shootings,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “One has to put oneself in their shoes ...
Most of our suspects are armed and dangerous.”

Lakhi-Hatia however acknowledged it was often hard to investigate police killings “as they are usually the first on the scene”.

According to Jean Redpath, an expert in the criminal justice system at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, the right of police to a deadly form of self-defence was conditional on there being no alternative.

“The legal position is that it is very much only in self-defence that one can shoot to kill and only if there is no other way to defend oneself. In other words, the response must be in proportion to the threat,” she said.

“That is the law, but obviously the law is not the same as what happens in the streets. And certainly, there is a lot of public sympathy for police using that kind of force.”

Sympathy for police reached new heights a year ago when four officers on patrol were killed in a shoot-out with an armed gang trying to pull off a heist in Johannesburg.

Ultimate price

In its aftermath, national Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said any criminal who pointed a gun at a police officer could expect to pay the ultimate price rather than simply being incapacitated.

“There are some criminals in South Africa who are armed, and are prepared to kill people ... Anyone who points a firearm at police will be killed by police officers,” said the minister.

Superintendent Vincent Mdunge, a spokesperson for the police in KwaZulu-Natal, said the recent shootings were acts of self-defence by officers who had every reason to fear for their lives and had nothing to do with Cele’s comments.

“All we are saying is that our officers are not going to die at the mercy of thugs,” he told AFP.

“We will still continue to encourage our members to act firmly against attacks directed at them and to defend themselves. The law gives them power to defend themselves.”

Much of the reaction to Cele’s comments has been favourable following a 118% recorded rise in bank robberies last year and 25,4% rise in house robberies.

“This is clearly a step in the right direction. Way to go, honourable minister,” said an editorial in the KwaZulu-Natal-based Daily News.

The Sowetan newspaper however depicted Cele as a gunslinger from the Wild West, saying the spate of killings was “thanks to [his] ‘shoot them’ order”.

Redpath said Cele’s comments reflected a broader anger at the failure to stem the tide of crime.

“There is a lot of anger about crime. A statement like that probably gets a lot of support among ordinary people,” she said.

“But it is a horrible thing ... it is counterproductive. If the representatives of the state do not have respect for life, how can we expect the people to have respect for life?” ‒ Sapa-AFP

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