Deaths escalate after Shabangu says ‘shoot to kill’

2011-05-07 19:15

Politics in policing is costing lives – not just the lives of criminals, but those of police officers and innocent South Africans.

Since the Dirty Harry speak started three years ago with then deputy minister of safety and security Susan Shabangu telling police officers to “shoot to kill”, followed by similar utterances from fellow politicians, the number of people killed by police has increased dramatically.

Police shootings have resulted in the deaths of 1 080 people between April 2008 and 2010, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, based on statistics by police watchdog the Independent Complaints Directorate.

The recent killing of Andries Tatane and the shooting of Jeanette Odendaal by police have underscored warnings made by experts since Shabangu’s utterances that political rhetoric can lead to a “trigger-happy police force”.

Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies says studies have shown that the least experienced and less trained police officers, such as constables, are more inclined to take political rhetoric seriously.

He says government is making the same mistakes over and over again by appointing political figures to head the police force instead of police officers.

“It happened under former president Thabo Mbeki when he appointed Jackie Selebi, and now under President Jacob Zuma when he appointed General Bheki Cele,” Newham says.

Instead of putting emphasis on “law and facts”, telling police officers the boring truth about how a police force should function effectively, Newham says police bosses have opted for the “sexy stuff” that plays into the hands of public opinion.

Cele has evolved as a shoot from the hip-speaking police boss, warning criminals and corrupt police officers with hard-hitting words about how the police will pounce on them.

“Politically, people like that. They respond to that.” But he says it does not solve the crime problem and only distracts police management from properly managing the police force.

One of the areas that needs serious management improvement is the police’s psychological service.

This was again emphasised in court this week with the appearance of Sergeant Manape Phineas, 38, accused of shooting Odendaal at close range in front of the Kempton Park police station last week.

The incident happened just a week after Phineas was discharged from a clinic where he was treated for alcohol abuse.

He was previously convicted of negligent use of a firearm, but only fined, and in January he received counselling for emotional stress.

Kerwin Lebone, a researcher at the South African Institute for Race Relations, says a study by the institute earlier this year shows South African cops are more regularly exposed to brutal and gratuitous violence compared with other countries.

“Police management need to improve counselling, as well as police training, the vetting process and how they take care of their officers,” says Lebone.

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