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By William Saunderson-Meyer


Police are ‘gangsters in uniform’

Killing suspects as a deterrent to crime goes against world’s experience, says head of Justice and Violence Prevention Programme.

The SA police Service (Saps), even by its own trigger-happy standards, has gone on a remarkable killing rampage over the past few weeks.

In Mpumalanga, five suspected cash-in-transit robbers were shot dead in an encounter at the gang’s den in Emalahleni.

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A further eight were detained and “about nine” somehow managed to escape the fusillade. In KwaZulu-Natal, police killed all nine members of a gang that had for months been terrorising the community from their Mariannhill safe house.

Linked by Police Minister Bheki Cele to 23 house robberies, a murder, a rape and an attempted rape, the Saps action was celebrated by the local community. Four illegal firearms were recovered.

Suspects shot dead

The previous week, also in KZN, four suspects were killed in a shoot-out with the police in Durban.

That same week, three were shot dead at Eshowe. Not to be left out, in Johannesburg a “multidisciplinary law enforcement operation” ended with three people shot dead at a “criminal enclave” in Booysens.

The police said these men, like those in Mariannhill, had been “terrorising residents” and had allegedly committed a string of violent crimes, including 30 murders.

From my rough count, taking in only police shootings where there were more than two fatalities per encounter, over the past four months, Saps shot dead 29 people in six encounters. Last year, the tally was 41 in 11 encounters.

Neither figure includes subsequent deaths in hospital. Although 109 police officers were killed in 11 months last year, few Saps deaths took place during these battles.

Most seem to take place before or after the criminal activity as Saps, acting on intelligence, descends to make arrests. Such incidents are part of a broadly deteriorating security situation.

Violent crime is increasing, with armed robbery up 45% over the past 12 years. Over the same period, murders increased by 77%.

Last year, the increase accelerated to 9%, averaging 75 murders per day, to deliver a total of 27 494 slain. This is an expanding loop of mayhem: increased crime, increased public fear and anger and a Saps that is ineffectual at crime prevention and terrible at its detection.

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Saps has a detection rate of 24% for all categories of violent crimes, with murder detection rates at 14%.

Since the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) rivals Saps in ineptness, only a fraction of those cases go to trial.

Not much of a deterrent to criminals here. Gideon Joubert, head of security projects at the business chamber, Sakeliga, says this decline in Saps performance is gathering pace, largely due to the extensive loss of institutional knowledge and experience over the past 15 years.

This has been compounded by the low quality of recruits and lowered academic standards.

“Police may effectively become a glorified armed response, with no ability to investigate crimes or close anything more complicated than a skeleton docket,” Joubert says.

Given the overwhelming advantages held by the criminals over the forces of law and order, it is not surprising that the public reaction to these recent deadly police actions has been favourable.

In the past year, Saps had shot dead 150 suspects, Cele boasted to the media. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen

Booysens, Witbank and Mariannhill all had ululating crowds feting a Saps that is often met with hostility because it fails to do its job. Hatchet-faced Police Minister Bheki Cele, who revels in his cultivated image of being the hard man, is revelling in the mass approval.

At a media briefing this week, Cele said while the death of any individual, criminal or not, should never be a cause of celebration, it “speaks volumes” that many are doing so following the recent takedowns. In the past year, Saps had shot dead 150 suspects, Cele boasted to the media.

“Our message is clear: no officer should die with a gun in their hand.”

The obvious counter to Cele’s machismo is that there is a danger of South American-style warfare between criminal gangs and the police, with the civilian population cowering in the middle.

There is also the possibility of this morphing into police vigilanteism. Cele scoffs at this.

“There is an independent directorate to investigate the actions of the police in such cases. We wish to allow those processes to unfold.”

Ipid ‘cannot carry out its mandate’

The problem is – and Cele knows it – the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipiid) to which he is referring, cannot carry out its mandate.

With a staff of only 176 investigators to monitor 180 000 police officers, it is swamped and drowning. Ipid executive director Dikeledi Ntlatseng, who was appointed by Cele, admitted in an eye-popping interview with the Sunday Times’ Chris Barron that it was “worrying” that cops were “short-circuiting the criminal justice system”.

While there were many officers of integrity, others “are involved with the criminals and the best way is to eliminate them and destroy evidence”.

“If you don’t come up with measures where people will be shocked by the actions of the police, nothing will happen.”

But not to worry, she reassured the nation. “The police know very well there is Ipid … They are afraid of us because they know they are going to be arrested for any action they take that is above the law.”

Gareth Newham, who heads the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Strategic Studies (Issa), doesn’t agree.

“The idea that killing suspects acts as a deterrent to crime is against the experience internationally.

“The more brutal and unlawful the police are seen to behave, the more dangerous their jobs become. Criminals start to see them as gangsters in uniforms.

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“If killing suspects was an effective solution, then the almost 2 000 people killed by police in South Africa over the past five years should be resulting in decreases in violent crime. Instead, we’ve experienced some of our largest increases in murder in years,” says Newham.

Ntlatseng’s blasé comments are also belied by a quick squiz at Ipid’s statistics. In the most recent reporting year, 2022-23, Ipid enrolled 5 274 new cases against police officers, of which 448 were deaths by police action (DPA).

Add the accumulated backlog from previous years, which is 17 988 cases in all categories, of which 1 318 are DPAs. In climbing this Sisyphean mountain of police crime, in 2022-23, Ipid managed to process 3 973 of what it calls “decision-ready” cases.

By my calculations, at that work rate, the existing 3.5-year backlog of total cases gets worse by three months every year. With the really serious DPA cases, the picture is worse: the DPA backlog is six years and is increasing by six months every year.

The Ipid report shows why. Of those 1 318 decision-readies cited, only 246 were DPA cases.

Of those DPAs, 158 went to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for it to decide on whether to accept the IPID recommendation of criminal prosecution. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t specify the fate of these 158 DPAs in the hands of the NPA.

However, it does record the dismal performance of the NPA in terms of the 2 093 Saps offences submitted to it.

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Ipid was, at the time of its report, “awaiting an NPA response” on 1 347 cases and the NPA declined to prosecute in 684 cases.

In total, only 53 prosecutions were launched in 2022-23. In nine of those cases, the NPA subsequently withdrew charges.

Not an inspiring record on the part of either Ipid or the NPA. While it is desirable to strengthen Ipid, that alone will not suffice – Saps leadership has to take full responsibility and be held accountable.

“Unfortunately”, says Newham, “this has not happened, and therefore there are large numbers of police members who behave unlawfully.”

In the meanwhile, ordinary South Africans will continue to the meat in the sandwich. Criminal thugs on the one side, criminal cops on the other.