South African police are twice as deadly as American cops – but they're also six times more likely to die on duty

SAPS officers evict residents at Rohihlahla Park, Phillippi East. (Daneel Knoetze)

SAPS officers evict residents at Rohihlahla Park, Phillippi East. (Daneel Knoetze)

In a feature titled The Counted, the Guardian is keeping track of the number of people killed by police action in the United States. “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years,” says the Guardian.

We wondered how the police in South Africa compared as the Guardian report contains alarming statistics:

In the first 24 days of 2015, US police shot dead 59 people. UK and Wales police have shot dead 54 people in the past 24 years. Only one person has ever been killed in Iceland – population 324 000 – since it became a republic 71 years ago.
Three people have been killed in Stockton California – population 300 000 – this year. There were 97 fatal shootings by US police in March 2015 compared with 94 by Australian police from 1992 to 2011. The article leaves readers in no doubt about the deadliness of the US police force.

So how does South Africa compare? Our police force is more lethal by far:

  • A police officer in SA in 2013 was twice as likely to kill someone as in the US.
  • A police officer in SA in 2013 was 4.3 times more likely to be killed than in the US.
  • There were 17 068 murders in SA compared with 16 121 in the US in 2013.

The Guardian says: “It’s rather difficult to compare data from different time periods, according to different methodologies, across different parts of the world, and still come to definitive conclusions.” It also says: “At least there is some accountability in America – even if data from the rest of the world is still catching up.”

Challenge of finding accurate data
It isn’t easy to get accurate year-by-year data on people killed by police action in the US, as Carl Bialik explains on FiveThirtyEight. The official count is about 930 people per year, but Bialik says this excludes people killed by local law enforcement agencies and that the actual number is in the region of 1 240.

The number of people killed by the South African Police Service (SAPS) is recorded in the annual report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). As with the American data, there are questions about accuracy. It’s not clear if this includes lethal force used by Metro cops. Also, the killings are divided between deaths in police custody and deaths as a result of police action.

To compare US and South African police lethality, we’ve used data from 2013 (or, to be precise, the 2013-2014 South African financial year) and where data is unclear we have made assumptions that err in favour of understating the lethality of the SAPS.

According to Ipid, the number of people killed by police action in South Africa in 2013 was 409. This was down from 485 in 2012, the year the Marikana massacre took place. It excludes the deaths of people in police custody.

Assuming the figure cited by Bialik of 1 242 police fatalities a year in the US, then taking into account that the US population is six times greater than South Africa’s, the SAPS are twice as lethal as their US counterparts.

SA more violent
South Africa is much more violent than the US. In 2013, 17 068 homicides were recorded in South Africa compared with 16 121 in the US. You’re about six times more likely to be murdered in South Africa.

South Africa is also a more dangerous place to be a cop, with 77 officers killed in the line of duty in 2013 compared with 107 in the US. Corrected for population, South African cops are six times more likely to die on the job.

Interestingly, in 2013 there were a lot fewer officer deaths in the US than in 2012 and 2014, but this doesn’t materially change things: being a cop in the US is substantially safer than being one in South Africa.

This article first appeared on Ground Up.

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