SAPS the biggest loser as Rambo police bosses mouth off
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.