‘Lethal force’ needs policy

2009-11-12 00:00

THE South African Police Service is clouded with “confusion” which has led to a “crisis of control relating to the use of lethal force,” senior researcher at the Centre for the Studies of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), David Bruce said this week. Reacting to yet another killing, that of three year-old Atlegang Aphane who was killed in a police shooting, the CSVR has called on the government to take “urgent steps to address the SAPS ­lethal force crisis of control,” Bruce said in a media statement yesterday.

Atlegang was hit by a bullet which went through the window of the car in which he was sitting in Klipfontein View in Johannesburg on Saturday. According to reports the police mistook something in the child’s hands for a gun. According to the mother, he was holding a lollipop. A police officer, Constable S. S. Malaka, appeared in court on Monday and was denied bail. Apparently the boy was sitting with his uncle inside the car when police allegedly opened fire and a bullet went through the boy’s chest and killed him.

According to Bruce, the incident is evidence of the confusion caused by statements made by politicians regarding the use of lethal force. “It is reasonable to believe that this breakdown of control is due to a climate of confusion which has been created by statements which have been made over the last year, and particularly in the last couple of months, by senior politicians and police leaders”. The CSVR acknowledged the severity of ­violent crime in South Africa but said that SAPS members need to be provided with the “appropriate support to enable them to deal professionally with situations of danger,” facing violent and heavily armed criminals. “However, heated political rhetoric that 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”.

The CSVR has expressed it’s support for the amendment of Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, saying that it is another factor that contributes to the confusion about the use of lethal force to effect an arrest. “It is difficult to interpret and may be a contributing factor to the current climate of confusion. The worthy principles which are embodied in the current law need to be articulated in clear and concrete terms so that police officers can better understand them. We support the need for amendment of the current legislation so long as the amendments contribute to greater legal clarity and are within the parameters of the constitution.”

Bruce added that while the amendment of the legislation should be treated as a priority, a process of consultation should also be followed. Among other issues that need to be addressed is the firing of warning shots. Bruce said there should be clarity around when, if at all, they should be used. He said that where possible, ­police should give verbal warnings to fleeing suspects prior to the use of ­lethal force against them. He also said the use of legal force against moving vehicles should be discouraged. He challenged the carrying of guns by ­police when they are off-duty, saying that it is a major cause of the killing of police.

CSVR believes that there is an urgent need for the SAPS to provide an overall statement of current policy relating to the use of lethal force. The statement should provide clarity and give guidelines to police officers. “Most importantly this should emphasise that police officers need to be guided by a reverence for human life, which implies taking the necessary steps to optimise their own safety and avoid the use of lethal force if it is likely to place the lives of innocent people in danger”. Bruce said such a policy would guide politicians on what to tell police officers on the use of guns. “This is important as police preparedness and professionalism in the use of lethal force is critical in the current climate of serious violent crime”.

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