KZN's Rambo cops

2011-02-19 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL police have killed 740 people over five years as concern mounts over rising police violence in the province on the back of politicians’ “shoot-to-kill” statements.

KwaZulu-Natal has the worst record in South Africa for deaths caused by police action between 2005 and 2009 — the last year for which statistics are available — even as police statistics show that violent crime, and violence against police officers, is decreasing.

By comparison over the same period, in Gauteng there were 626 killings by police officers and in the Eastern Cape (the third highest) there were 299.

KwaZulu-Natal accounts for 32% of all shooting-related deaths by police officers in South Africa.

The spotlight in the province is falling on the elite Tactical Response Team (TRT), which was the brainchild of national commissioner General Bheki Cele, formerly safety and security MEC (see accompanying stories).

Since the unit’s 2009 launch, there are already 10 investigations into the unit, with nine of these focusing on the deaths of civilians.

About 20 members of the unit — whose duty was described by the then deputy police minister Fikile Mbalula as “not to negotiate, but to fight” — are facing criminal charges relating to violent crime and alleged murder.

Police watchdog the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) said by comparison since April 2008 to March 2010 there were only two cases being investigated against TRT units in Mpumalanga — two in the Western Cape and one in the Northern Cape.

Experts told Media24 Investigations they believe the soaring official violence in KwaZulu-Natal could be because of the “shoot-to-kill” comments made by the police commissioner.

David Bruce, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the statistics lead to speculation that sections of the police in KZN “have adopted an approach which is defined by the belief that extra-legal methods are not only justified, but in fact necessary to address violent crime”.

“KwaZulu-Natal does not consistently record higher levels of violence against police than does Gauteng. It does, however, consistently record higher levels of violence by police as reflected in statistics on the deaths as a result of police action which have been higher than those recorded in Gauteng in all years since the ICD was established except for 2002-2003,” said Bruce.

Independent KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas said the “shoot-to-kill” statements encourage a sense of impunity on the part of the police.

“If what is happening now had happened under apartheid there would have been a public outcry.There is bad management and police from the old days are doing their own thing. In some instances management has no idea where their guys go.

“Police officers move from their own area to another policing area, they assault and detain people but don’t book them in at any police station, and management doesn’t know what is going on,” said De Haas.

“One has to ask, why now, when, according to the police stats, violent crime rate is decreasing? Fewer police have been shot in recent years than 10 or 15 years ago.”

ICD head Francois Beukman said it is difficult to explain the increase in police violence in KwaZulu-Natal.

“Our approach is to evaluate each case on its merits and recommend to the DPP to prosecute. You will always have a certain percentage of police who act outside the law,” said Beukman.

He said the new Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) — legislation to create such a directorate was recently passed by Parliament — will have more power and will focus on investigating serious criminal offences by police.

“It is in the interest of the country that we ensure that police conduct is in line with the Constitution. The victims will have much more improved reviews of police conduct.”

Democratic Alliance shadow minister of police Dianne Kohler Barnard said KwaZulu-Natal police gained their reputation of violence under Cele when he was MEC for safety and security in the province.

“His shoot-to-kill stance, which he took over from the then deputy minister of police, Susan Shabangu, has continued since he moved on to become the national police commissioner,” said Barnard.

National spokesperson for the SA Police Force Vishnu Naidoo said that the police could not respond generally because each case involving a death by police officers has its own merits and circumstances.

“The working environment of our police officers is potentially life- threatening because they deal with people who resort to using heavy calibre weapons. But having said that, our officers know in what circumstance they must use their weapons,” said Naidoo.

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