Experts: Be afraid of police force

Consider a scenario of a trigger-happy police force getting out of hand before crime does.

Many a South African is somewhat scared of this happening, Johan Burger, of the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies, said this week.

“One almost wants to ask the question: What will come first? Will crime get out of control first, or will the police get out of control first?”

These options are “equally dangerous”, said Burger. His observations came as the public reeled from the latest police shooting that claimed the life of a three-year-old boy, apparently after his uncle was mistaken for a criminal.

The boy, Atlegang Phalane, died on the scene outside a relative’s house in Klipfontein View Extension 2, northeast of Johannesburg.

Commented senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation David Bruce: “There is a crisis of control in the Saps (SA Police Service) relating to the use of lethal force.”

Sapa approached several experts in the past few days on sweeping changes envisaged in the way South Africa is policed.

These include plans to turn the current SAPS into a single “super” military-ranked police force with orders not to hesitate to shoot, changes that led former minister Kader Asmal criticising the government for “militarising” the police.

Burger said there was a clear movement from a more “defensive” position on crime, to a more “offensive” one.

The police moved away from a “force-orientated” body in 1994, when it had to democratise and transform, to a more “service-orientated” organisation.

This was necessary at the time as the police’s image was in tatters and it had to win back legitimacy from a violent past.

But the changes impaired the police in effectively fighting crime.

Community Police Forums were set up, where police consult the community in crime fighting to be more accountable to them, instead of the pre-1994 style of using force to keep the law.

This resulted in the pendulum swinging to the side where the police were more focused on “service delivery” than “enforcing the law”.

But this was interpreted by criminals that the police’s hands were tied, and they started to exploit the situation, leading to the high levels of crime today.

“We have to now find a way to balance the two,” says Burger.

“While I understand that changes are needed, you have to warn policemen that the changes should not create the idea that you now can be—or have to be—the policeman that you were prior to 1994.”

One of the changes that fuels fears of excessive use of force by the police the most is a possible amendment of section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act.

This section gives police the right to use deadly force when arresting a criminal.

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos of the University of Cape Town said it was not clear how the government intended to change section 49 yet.

“It (the current section 49) already gives a police officer all the protection that he needs, should he shoot a criminal,” said De Vos.

“I don’t know what they want to change to make it easier for them to shoot someone.”

The proposed changes are hotly defended by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, saying that the changes will just make it easier for police to understand their in a situation.

But while the changes are necessary, Bruce cautioned that care should be taken in applying them.

“There is a serious problem of violent crime in South Africa and I believe that Saps members need to be provided with the appropriate support to enable them to deal professionally with situations of danger in which they confront violent, and in some cases heavily armed, criminals,” said Bruce.

“However, heated political rhetoric which encourages the reckless or unlawful use of lethal force does not serve to support police officers but rather feeds into confusing them and potentially placing them in legal jeopardy.”

Last week, a court heard a case of a civilian, Kgothatso Ndobe, who was shot dead by the police. He ran away from the police because he was smoking dagga, his family and friends said.

In another incident, two patrons of a tavern in Matsulu outside Nelspruit were killed when police raided it. Patrons started throwing bottles at police when they were asked to be searched and police responded by shooting rubber bullets. Two died after being shot with sharp point ammunition.

The Independent Complaints Directorate is investigating. Professor David Mashiloane, head of the department of Unisa’s police studies, agreed that the problem was not the law itself, but the understanding of the law by police officers.

There were no guarantees that the changing of the legislation would make police officers better understand it.

“The previous one was changed because we thought the police were really going overboard and that was another dimension of understanding,” said Mashiloane.

André Beukes, deputy commissioner of police in the Nelson Mandela-era, said the decision for a police officer to draw his weapon and to shoot, was completely discretionary.

“You cannot teach discretion. It is inborn,” he said.—Sapa

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