MPs investigate deadly force amendment

2011-08-24 17:13
Cape Town - Draft legislation seeking to change the circumstances in which police officers may use deadly force came under the scrutiny of MPs on Wednesday.

Members of Parliament's justice portfolio committee are examining the criminal procedure amendment bill, drawn up following a request by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to change Section 49 of the principal act.

Section 49 regulates the use of force during the arrest of a suspect in a criminal matter. The committee has called for submissions on the measure.

According to the minister, the amendment is necessary to bring the legislation in line with a Constitutional Court judgment in the Walters’ case.

The judgement refers to the use of force during an arrest. The court had ruled that the shooting of a suspect to carry out an arrest was permitted in very limited circumstances.

Speaking during his submission on Wednesday, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos told the committee the amendment was not necessary.

"What is required is not an amendment of the law. Something far more difficult is required: more sustained training of the police to interpret this [legislation]... And that is really the heart of the matter."

Responding to questions on the proposed amendment to the act, he said it was not a limitation but actually an extension of the powers provided to the police.

"To the extent it extends the power of the police in both defending themselves and in using deadly force in arresting somebody, it goes beyond what the Walters’ judgment actually says is permissible," he said.

‘Violation of human rights’

The justice department has defended the bill, saying it will provide "greater legal certainty to arresters".

In a statement earlier this year, it said the police wanted the amendment partly because a police officer chasing a known violent offender "runs the risk of the suspect turning around and firing at the police officer".

According to the Independent Complaints Directorate, 524 people died in police action last year, up from 282 in 2005/2006.

Among organisations set to make a submission to the committee are the Law Society, Lawyers for Human Rights, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, and the Institute for Security Studies.

They are largely opposed to the measure, with the Law Society reported as saying the measure, if adopted, would lead to a violation of human rights.

At the time Cabinet approved the bill, in September last year, it said the measure "strives to provide greater legal certainty to arresters regarding circumstances under which force may be applied when attempting to effect an arrest, and the nature of the force that may lawfully be used in the process".

The proposed legislation will authorise the police to shoot if the suspect in question is suspected, on reasonable grounds, of having previously threatened or caused serious bodily harm to someone.

The committee has received 18 submissions.

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