Shooting to kill ‘is not the answer’

2009-10-23 00:00

RECENT statements made by government ministers in the police department as well as by the state president on the SAP approach to dealing with crime have sparked a national debate. Police tactics have recently come under scrutiny, especially after this month’s killing of 30-year-old Olga Kekana, who was on her way to a party in a car with three friends near Pretoria.

The latest report released by the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) reveals that the SAPS shot dead 556 people — including 32 innocent bystanders — between April last year and March 2009, the highest figure in a decade.

It also shows that KwaZulu-Natal has the highest number of deaths as a result of police action and an increase of 47% from the previous year. Although the figures are for a period prior to the recent period of heated rhetoric about the use of force by politicians, there are fears that the figures may rise again.

KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas said politicians’ comments were irresponsible. “I think it is highly irresponsible of politicians to encourage police to shoot — they already have the power to defend themselves if they are at risk. What politicians should be doing is holding police accountable for firearms that go missing and for not properly dealing with the problem of the proliferation of illegal firearms.”

De Haas said deaths at the hands of police happen under suspicious circumstances where there are no witnesses.

“So, in far too many cases the full truth of why people were shot does not emerge. It’s one thing if there is a shoot-out involving robbers with high- calibre weapons — quite another if someone is shot during a pointing out, when there are supposed to be strict procedures in place to prevent that type of thing happening. It is a disgrace that so many people, including innocent bystanders, are killed. If it had happened under apartheid there would have been a national outcry.”

She said there is a distinction between “situations in which the police are clearly at risk and those many other situations for which we have only the words of the police about what happened”.

National police commissioner Bheki Cele has reiterated his call for police to shoot at criminals. In a briefing at the National Assembly’s Police Committee on Tuesday, Cele said police are dealing with heavily armed gangs who do not hesitate to open fire and that police officers should not think twice about shooting if caught in that situation.

“Nobody says police officers must shoot schoolchildren. Nobody says they must shoot people marching for their labour [rights], but no policeman must smile on a thug who has a gun in his hand. That is clear. I am prepared to take the blame if they [the police] become cowboys.”

David Bruce, senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, referred to a 2007 report.

“A key level of support that needs to be provided to SAPS members relates to promoting their abilities and, therefore, their confidence to deal with situations of confrontation and conflict which may require the use of force. Of these situations the most hazardous for SAPS members are those which involve the use of lethal force.

“The benefits of improving police confidence and the quality of police interventions in these situations will not only include more effective policing interventions and better adherence to human-rights principles, but will raise police morale, with a potentially positive impact on members’ mental health.”

He said the new government seems to be bringing to its engagement with crime an acknowledgement of the importance of providing moral support to the police.

Bruce said it is not clear whether politicians are giving an order to police to kill without mercy.

“It is one thing to say that we are ‘at war with criminals’, but countries which engage in wars are supposed to be bound by the laws of war which provide that enemy soldiers who surrender are to be taken prisoner and treated humanely. If politicians regard themselves as being involved in a war against crime, it is important to clarify whether this is a war in which we take people prisoner once they have surrendered, or whether it is a war in which we kill without mercy.”

KwaZulu-Natal Congress of the People member Siyanda Mhlongo has opposed the remilitarisation of the SAPS and intelligence. “Why do we have a police department that is similar to those in countries such as Zimbabwe, Chile and other police states?

“We state our position clearly because it was in KwaZulu-Natal where we had notorious apartheid police like KwaZulu Police and Special Branch. It was in KwaZulu-Natal where Griffiths Mxenge, Joseph Mdluli, Portia Ndwandwe and many others died in the hands of police generals, lieutenants and brigadiers. It was in KwaZulu-Natal where a militarised police force ganged up with reactionary forces to unleash black-on-black violence in KwaMakhutha, Lamontville, Hambanathi and Mpumalanga townships.

“It was a militarised police who produced the likes of [detective constable] Siphiwe Mvuyane, who was notorious for his shoot-to-kill philosophy.”

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