To shoot or not to shoot?

2009-08-28 00:00

THERE seems to be a great amount of controversy regarding the use of deadly force by police officers. Recent shootings by police officers have been condemned. A recent situation where police officers failed to shoot while watching a woman being assaulted and killed was also condemned. Police administrators are ordering their officers to shoot to kill, rather than be killed. Senior Superintendent Henry Budhram is quoted as stating: “They [the police] have to assess the situation and explore all steps possible to arrest the person first, before they can shoot.” While another officer states: “It is a catch-22 situation; when you shoot you are in trouble and if you don’t shoot you are in trouble.”

So we have a young woman being bludgeoned to death in public while at least five police officers look on and do nothing; perhaps assessing the situation to determine if all possibilities have first been examined, as quoted above by Budhram. One may wonder what other possible alternatives existed aside from attempting to save a life.

The fact is that both quoted officers are correct. The situation must be evaluated and the action taken must conform to the rule of law. Any and all choices selected will most likely result in a variety of evils for the officer.

In making an assessment of the situation an officer faces when deadly force may be an option (all in a second) there are many things that must be


• First and foremost is that deadly force may only be used to prevent death or severe injury to the officer or others. Some laws permit the use of deadly force to overcome resistance and effect an arrest, while others permit deadly force to prevent the escape of someone who may be a threat to the community. South African laws appear to lean on the conservative side, with deadly force only permitted to prevent death or severe injury. However, universally, the use of deadly force is only authorised when the following conditions are met.

• The suspect must have intent to harm or kill. A person simply waving a knife in the air has not demonstrated intent.

• The suspect must have the capa­bility to harm or kill. A wheelchair-bound, knife-wielding suspect screaming that he will kill you from across the street is not capable of doing so.

• The suspect must have the means of harming or killing. An unarmed child screaming that he will kill you has neither the capability nor the means.

• The suspect must have the oppor­tunity to harm or kill. A person making such threats from a prison cell has hardly the opportunity to kill a guard on the other side of the bars.

• The attack must have commenced. The vocal threat, even with the above conditions in place, is not enough to warrant the use of deadly force.

• And, finally, there must be preclusion. The officer must have no other means of frustrating the actions of a suspect.

All of the above are what Budhram means when he says that the situation must be assessed based on the rule of law.

However, the conditions allowing the use of deadly force by an officer go beyond the above qualifications. Preclusion means that there is no lesser force alter­native than shooting a suspect. Unfortunately, most of the South African police officers are armed with only a pistol. An offi­cer armed only with a pistol has few choices other than to shout “stop” or shoot when faced with a deadly assault. They carry no chemical or electric weapons. Few, if any, carry the tonfa or baton. The ability of the police to use unarmed tactics is a myth, and many are so overweight or out of condition that any major exertion would probably result in a heart attack.

A young woman is being beaten to death and four police officers witness this and do nothing. Perhaps they didn’t like the odds. Armed student police officers arrive, but they do nothing. Perhaps they failed that part of the test at the police college?

The government is spending vast amounts of money attempting to limit the number of licen­ced firearms in this society, and stating that citizens must rely upon the police for protection. So be comforted by the fact that when seconds count the police are only minutes away.

The police officer quoted above, who claimed that the pol­ice are in trouble whether they shoot or not, is also very correct. The United States police seem to have the solution when they claim that they would rather be tried by 12, than carried by six.

• Rick Baratta has 50 years of law enforcement experience in the United States and South Africa.

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