WSM: SAPS trigger-happy killing rampage raises alarm

South Africa’s police force, SAPS, has sparked controversy with a series of deadly encounters, leaving many questioning the balance between law enforcement and excessive force. Recent operations resulting in multiple civilian deaths have drawn both praise and concern from the public, highlighting broader issues of rising crime rates, inadequate crime prevention, and challenges within SAPS and the justice system. As debates intensify, the nation grapples with the complexities of maintaining public safety while upholding human rights and accountability in law enforcement.

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By William Saunderson-Meyer

The South African police, 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 Witbank. 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 with ululations of joy. Four illegal firearms were recovered.

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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 that these men, like those in Marianhill, had been “terrorising residents” and had committed a string of violent crimes, including 30 murders.

From my rough count based on police media releases — tallying only police shootings where there were more than two civilian fatalities per encounter — over the past four months SAPS shot dead 29 people in six encounters. Last year, the score was 41 in 11 encounters. Neither figure includes subsequent deaths in hospital, which are not reflected in SAPS releases.

While the police die singly, the alleged criminals are increasingly dying en masse. Although 109 police officers were killed in 11 months last year, very few SAPS deaths took place during these battles.

These incidents are generally not firefights that occur during the commission of a crime. Most seem to take place before or after the criminal activity, when SAPS, acting on intelligence, descends to make arrests.

By police accounts, the criminals always shoot first but, as reflected in the fatality statistics, fortunately, have exceptionally poor marksmanship. Pity SAPS, and the neighbours, when the criminals, who are often armed with sophisticated automatic weapons, become more proficient at laying down fire.

This phenomenon is 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 — the least under-recorded category of crime — increased by 77%. Last year the rate of increase accelerated to 9%, averaging 75 murders per day, to deliver a grisly total of 27,494 people slain.

It’s an expanding and self-reinforcing loop of mayhem. Increased crime, increased public fear and anger, and a SAPS that is ineffectual at crime prevention and terrible at its detection. SAPS has a detection rate of 24% for all categories of violent crimes, with murder detection rates at 14% and armed robberies at 10%.

Since the National Prosecuting Authority rivals SAPS in ineptness, only a fraction of those cases go to trial and an even smaller fraction results in jail sentences. Not much of a deterrent to criminals here.

Gideon Joubert, head of security projects at the business chamber Sakeliga, tells me that in his view, 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.

“It is plausible,” Joubert says, “that the police may effectively become a glorified armed response, with no ability to investigate crimes or close anything more complicated than a skeleton docket [[containing the barest details].”

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. Booysens, Witbank and Mariannhill all had joyful crowds feting a SAPS that is often the target of public hostility because it fails to do its job.

That is especially true at the sharp end. Poor communities cannot supplement SAPS with private security companies.

While acknowledging the criticisms of the editorial writers, our hatchet-faced Police Minister Bheki Cele, who has cultivated a persona of the hard man, is revelling in this new mass approval. At a media briefing this week, Cele said that 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. “Our message is clear: no officer should die with a gun in their hand,” he said.

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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 fire zone. There is also the possibility of this morphing, if it hasn’t already done so, into police vigilantism.

Cele scoffs at this. “There is an independent directorate that is there to investigate the actions of the police in such cases. We wish to allow those processes to unfold. With that said, the ministry and SAPS management remain resolute in their support for the men and women in blue who are at the coalface of hardened criminals.”

The problem is, and Cele knows it, that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to which he is referring cannot fulfil its mandate. With a staff of only 176 investigators to monitor 180,000 police officers, it’s swamped and drowning.

IPID Executive Director Dikeledi Ntlatseng, who was appointed by Cele, admitted in an eye-popping interview with the Sunday Times’s 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 very same criminals and the best way is to eliminate them and destroy evidence”.

Pressed by Barron on Cele’s gung-ho comments, Ntlatseng said that she agreed with him because of the levels of violent crime. “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 (ISS), tells me he doesn’t agree with Ntlatseng. “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 and are more, not less, likely to engage in shootouts with them.

“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, and ongoing increases in violent robberies,” says Newham.

Ntlatseng’s blasé comments are also belied by a quick squizz 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). Those proportions and numbers have remained pretty much the same over the past few years.

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 alleged police crime, in 2022/23, IPID managed to process 3,973 cases to “decision-ready” status.

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 in the 2022/23 report, 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. Another unspecified number were referred to SAPS for internal disciplinary action.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t specify the fate of these 158 DPAs in the hands of the NPA. However, it does in general terms record the dismal performance of the NPA in terms of the 2,093 SAPS offences (all crime categories) that were submitted to it. IPID was, at the time of the compilation of its 2022/23 report, “awaiting an NPA response” on 1,347 cases, while the NPA declined to prosecute in 684 cases.

In total, only 53 NPA 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 NPA.

Of course, the DPAs I’ve extracted are only part of the picture of SAPS criminality and violence. The same report records the death in police custody cases at 221 (to add to a backlog of 390), 710 unlawful discharge of a service weapon cases (2,563), 122 of rape (196), 228 of torture (959), 3,354 of assault (11,876), and 216 of corruption and other crimes (686 more in the backlog).

ISSA’s Newham points out that given the extent of South Africa’s troubled and violent landscape, IPID with its limited resources can never on its own be an effective watchdog over the police. While it is desirable to strengthen IPID, that alone would not suffice — SAPS leadership has to take full responsibility and be held directly accountable for ensuring that all police members uphold the standards contained in the SAPS Codes of Ethics and Conduct.

“Unfortunately”, says Newham, “this has not happened, and therefore there are large numbers of police members who behave unlawfully as evidenced by the R2.5 billion that SAPS has had to pay victims of police misconduct over the past five years.”

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

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This article was first published by PoliticsWeb and is republished with permission.

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