How to Stop Police Brutality and the Killing of Police Officers in SA

Over the past few weeks, the media has carried several stories about the killing of members of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Such reports jostled with persistent reports about police brutality triggered by the police killing of Ficksburg activist Andries Tatane. After the funeral of a slain police officer, national police commissioner, General Bheki Cele, called the situation a ‘national crisis’.

The killing of police officials in South Africa is a serious and continuing problem. Last year, the SAPS annual report gave the names of 107 police officials who were killed on duty. Between 2001 and 2010 1 130 police officials were killed. Between January and the end of June 2011, a total of 39 police officials had been killed.

In response, General Cele has called for mandatory life sentences for those found guilty of murdering police officials and urged SAPS members to respond by defending themselves using the ‘maximum force’ allowed by law. While all people who are outraged by the killing of police officials will support these measures, they are unlikely to lead to the improved safety of police officers or reduce the numbers of police officers who are killed.

The use of force is an inherent characteristic of police work everywhere in the world. Consequently, both the deaths of police officers on duty and police brutality are well-known occupational hazards. It is therefore not surprising that the measures required to reduce threats to the lives of police officers are, in many instances, the same as those required to prevent police brutality. Certainly, both challenges require police leaders to improve the overall management of the use of force by police officers. This can be done if the underlying factors that result in the killing of police officials, and the use of brutal force (including torture) by the police, are properly identified. Only then can effective measures be taken to address both problems simultaneously

This is not a uniquely South African problem and there are international and local precedents for what can be done to effectively improve the management of the use of force in policing.

Following the killing of 265 police members in 1998, the highest number of police killings since the advent of democracy, then safety and security minister, Sydney Mufamadi, established a multidisciplinary committee to improve the safety of police officials. This committee examined the nature of attacks on police officials and found, most surprisingly, that almost two-thirds of those who were killed were off duty at the time and a little more than one-third were on duty.

Police on duty were most at danger when trying to make an arrest and as a result of premeditated attacks, such as when criminals ambushed police officials to steal their firearms or to assist in the escape of a person from police custody. Worryingly, the perpetrator in almost one in 10 police killings was another police official. By examining the circumstances of attacks on police officials, the committee identified managerial and organisational shortcomings that contributed to, or at the very least failed to prevent, deaths and injuries of many police victims.

For example, it was found that plans for promoting police safety were not being implemented, required training was nonexistent or inadequate, there were not enough bulletproof vests and, importantly, there was poor managerial supervision and accountability at station and unit level. As a result, police officials did not follow proper procedures when responding to complaints, searching suspects or making arrests, did not use their equipment effectively and were not ‘safety conscious’. This made them vulnerable to attack during which they could be injured or killed.

The solutions included short-term intervention, such as offering a R250 000 reward to anyone who provided information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person responsible for killing a police officer; and longer-term intervention, such as improving police tactical training, purchasing more bulletproof vests and launching an internal and external awareness campaign to promote police safety. A new directorate for police safety was established at SAPS headquarters to drive the implementation of the recommendations. By 2005, the number of deaths of police officials fell to an all-time low of 94.

The available research is now more than 10 years old and there is an urgent need to update it to identify remedies appropriate for today’s circumstances. Certainly, the findings of the Police Advisory Committee in 2008 found that many of the internal challenges facing the SAPS persist.

Simply threatening harsh sanctions against police murderers, and encouraging police to focus on using more force in their interaction with criminal suspects, is unlikely to improve officer safety. Rather, it will play into systemic police brutality, which will cause civilians to become fearful and less cooperative with police. Criminals will not stop committing crimes. Rather, they will arm themselves more heavily and shoot at police more quickly if they believe they are more likely to be killed than arrested. This will make the job of policing SA more dangerous and may contribute to more police killings. Such was the case in the last two years of apartheid, when an average of 266 police officials were murdered each year.

Police leadership needs urgently to start focusing on improving the strategic, management and internal accountability capacity that will support professional policing. The success of this will be seen in two crucial ways. First, police members will be better able to confront dangerous criminals and defend themselves and others using lethal force. They will have the necessary skills and confidence to handle the complexities they confront in their daily engagement with the public and while enforcing the law against dangerous criminals.

Second, police corruption and brutality will decrease substantially and, consequently, public trust in police will improve. Communities will increasingly start to respect and support police officers because they will be seen to be public servants who are well trained and behave according to much higher standards than civilians.

Professional police officers will have the skills to avoid using force in their interaction with members of the public and will use it only when absolutely necessary. When force is used, it will be the minimum amount required and proportional to the task at hand.

Clearly this is not happening on the streets. Between 2005 and last year, the Independent Complaints Directorate recorded a 50 percent increase in cases of attempted murder and 100 percent increase in cases of serious assault opened against police officials.

South Africa is very fortunate to have a civil society that seeks to support the government in building a better country for all. We urge the SAPS leadership to work with civil society organisations such as universities, research and policy institutes, unions and others with the appropriate skill and insight to address the challenges facing the police. Wide-scale organisational changes are required in the SAPS if the problems of police brutality, corruption and poor community relations are to be effectively solved.

Ultimately, all South Africans want the same thing - a police force we can trust because its leaders are beyond reproach and its members are widely recognised as professional, respectful and accountable to the needs of the communities they serve. 

- Gareth Newham is head of Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

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