SAPS the big­gest loser as Rambo po­lice bosses mouth off

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES -

WHY IS it that ev­ery civil­ian tasked with over­sight of the SAPS turns into Rambo?

Suc­ces­sive national com­mis­sion­ers and min­is­ters have within days of ap­point­ment per­fected gun­slinger swag­gers and be­gun la­con­i­cally promis­ing that cops will “shoot first” and “shoot to kill… the bas­tards”.

The ex­cep­tion, Nathi Mthethwa, un­doubt­edly the best po­lice min­is­ter in a dozen or so years, now seems in dan­ger of in­gest­ing the bug.

Last week he boasted that the de­cline in heists and rob­beries was due to the SAPS “fight­ing with fire”. Pre­sum­ably he means by this the in­creas­ing num­ber of sus­pects who are killed “re­sist­ing ar­rest”.

It sur­prises one that lo­cal bad­dies are not more cir­cum­spect. Af­ter all, there is a greater chance in South Africa of be­ing shot by a cop than any­where else in the world.

The num­ber of peo­ple shot dead by SAPS vir­tu­ally dou­bled to 521 over the five years to last year. This year’s Independent Com­plaints Direc­torate re­port doesn’t sep­a­rate shoot­ings from deaths in cus­tody, but a stag­ger­ing 1 276 peo­ple died as a re­sult of po­lice ac­tion last year.

Some may ar­gue that’s a price worth pay­ing for greater pub­lic safety. Ex­cept that, as Gareth Ne­wham of the In­sti­tute for Se­cu­rity Stud­ies points out, there is ab­so­lutely no cor­re­la­tion be­tween cops killing rob­bers and the in­ci­dence of crime, which peaked in 2002/03.

It’s in the DNA of para­mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions like the po­lice to talk of war – sus­pended national com­mis­sioner, Gen­eral Bheki Cele, liked to re­fer to his “foot soldiers” and keenly sup­ported the adop­tion of mil­i­tary ranks – and to think in terms of siege. Ad­mit­tedly, the po­lice are be­sieged by vi­o­lent crim­i­nals, by crit­ics with no con­cep­tion of the stress ex­pe­ri­enced at polic­ing’s sharp end, and by some of their own top brass – ap­pa­ratchiks who are not ap­pointed on merit.

But gung-ho, care­less polic­ing comes with a price tag. Mthethwa re­ported this week that civil claims aris­ing from as­saults, wrong­ful po­lice ac­tions and ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dents in­creased in 2010/11 by 46 per­cent to al­most R3.7bn. The le­gal cost of 8 074 claims was more than R106m.

Mthethwa be­moans this drain on the bud­get and pledges that the po­lice will learn to re­spect hu­man rights and im­prove their con­duct.

“In­stead of pay­ing le­gal costs, this money could have been bet­ter utilised in other cru­cial SAPS pro­grammes,” said Mthethwa.

Ad­mirable sen­ti­ments, ex­cept that among those claims is one of R1.45m lodged by Cape Town stu­dent Chu­mani Maxwele, af­ter the pres­i­den­tial polic­ing de­tail set upon him. He had dared to make a de­fi­ant ges­ture to the noisy blue light mo­tor­cade.

The cops set upon Maxwele, trussed him, stuffed his head in a bin bag, roughed him up, threw him in jail, and ri­fled through his home. He was never charged.

Maxwele, whose dam­ages claim likely will only be heard in 2014, has been the sub­ject of an SA Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (HRC) rul­ing. The com­mis­sion de­clared the SAPS guilty of sev­eral in­fringe­ments of Maxwele’s rights and in­structed the min­is­ter to apol­o­gise, and to de­tail how the SAPS would pre­vent this kind of abuse re­cur­ring.

Mthethwa ig­nored the find­ing un­til the HRC gave no­tice of its in­ten­tion to ap­ply for a com­pli­ance or­der. Then Mthethwa ap­pealed against the HRC rul­ing, only to lose again.

There the mat­ter rests for now. The min­is­ter is de­fy­ing an in­sti­tu­tion set up specif­i­cally to pro­tect the rights en­shrined in the con­sti­tu­tion and, in the back­ground, the SAPS’ le­gal bill keeps tick­ing up.

Mthethwa should sti­fle his ma­cho in­stinct to keep slug­ging. Com­ply­ing with the HRC rul­ing will not only save SAPS the le­gal fees he pro­fesses to be irked by, but will pass down the ranks the im­por­tant sig­nal that cops are not above the law.

That would be some­thing new.

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