The risk of bogus cops

2014-04-17 00:00

ASENIOR policeman — Gauteng police Major-General Bethuel Zuma — was recently acquitted by a Pietermaritzburg magistrate on a charge of failing to obey the instructions of a traffic officer because it was accepted that Zuma had feared at the time that a drinking-and-driving roadblock that was set up in Alexandra Road “might be bogus”.

Magistrate Reard Abrahams accepted Zuma’s explanation that he’d believed the traffic officer manning the roadblock on the night of December 19, 2008, could have been a “bogus cop” and that he’d felt it was too dangerous to stop.

This decision could be construed as an indication to motorists that they are not required to stop when confronted by a police officer or traffic officer waving a flashlight at them at night if they are in doubt about their legitimacy.

But the reality is that South Africans find themselves in a “catch 22” situation, where they run the risk of being shot by legitimate police officers if they are thought to be wilfully disobeying an order, and also of being shot or hijacked by criminals who use blue lights and uniforms to disguise themselves as law-enforcement officials.

A South Coast restaurant owner, Leanne Douglas, was killed last September when her car was shot at by police who pursued her along the N2 in as yet unknown circumstances.

The police reportedly claimed that she’d ignored their instructions to stop when they tried to flag her down for allegedly driving recklessly. The case is under investigation by the Independent Police Directorate.

Meanwhile, reports in the media about attacks on the public and motorists by “bogus police” are extremely common.

In October 2013, following a Carte Blanche exposé, National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega announced that a special “blue-light crimes” investigate unit was investigating 250 complaints at that time.

In November last year, Justice Project South Africa (JPSA) and the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC) jointly released an official “blue-light protocol”, setting out what motorists should do if they feel uncomfortable about stopping for a vehicle with flashing blue lights due to the prevalence of crimes committed by so-called “bogus” police and traffic officers.

According to their website, South African law with respect to stopping for police or traffic officials is clear. It is a criminal offence to fail to stop for them.

The blue-light protocol was established so that the public and law-enforcement agencies are “on the same page”.

Reading through the protocol, I had to wonder how practical it really is, and whether any motorist can be expected to adhere to it in a situation where he or she is feeling alarmed and threatened.

For example, motorists are advised to “stay calm”, to “slow right down and turn on one’s hazard lights”.

Thereafter, the protocol states: “Extend your right arm out of the window and with a tightly outspread hand extended into the air with your forearm at 90 degrees from your shoulder.

“Gesture for them to follow you by moving your forearm forward and back to the upright, and repeat this action several times.”

One’s gut reaction to being chased by a potential hijacker would most likely be to put one’s foot down and get to safety as quickly as possible.

Clearly, the advice to drive directly to the nearest police station — assuming one knows where it is — or to a place that has CCTV, like the forecourt of any service station, is sensible and logical.

It is also sensible advice to phone 1011 if you have a cellphone on you, to report that you are being followed, are heading for the closest police station or public place, and to ask for directions if need be.

All these measures are nontheless reliant on the police being adequately trained in order to react sensitively in a situation where a member of the public may mistake them for a criminal.

It is the police who need to keep their cool in the face of a motorist’s possible disregard for an instruction.

After all, they are not the ones under threat.

The safety of the public is paramount in these circumstances.

• Ingrid Oellermann is the court reporter at The Witness.

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