South Africa

Analysis: Three out of every five police killed off duty

By David Bruce 9 September 2015

Though police may be officials of the state, they are also ordinary South Africans. Many of them die just like ordinary South Africans do. Addressing the killings of police requires moving beyond the one-dimensional narrative of police killed in the line of duty. By DAVID BRUCE.

The press placards on Monday morning portrayed it as another ‘fight back’ speech. But in fact President Jacob Zuma’s speech at the South African Police Service (SAPS) National Commemoration Day on Sunday was, in some respects at least, fairly measured.

He did urge police to “defend yourselves with everything at your disposal if you are attacked” but he said this should be “within the confines of the law”.

He also said that South Africa’s laws “allow the police to fight back decisively when their lives or those of the public are threatened”.

“Criminals must know that our police officers are not sitting ducks. They will fight back when their lives or those of the public are in danger.”

But this was followed by the statement that “the police must act within the law at all times and avoid using excessive force”.

Despite their rhetorical tone, these statements are, in essence, correct. South African law does allow the police and others to use force, including, if necessary, lethal force, to protect themselves against threats to their lives.

At least then his formal written speech, published on the website of the Presidency, places a strong emphasis on legality. Press reports, however, indicate that there were some departures from this. These suggest that Zuma continues to believe that the law imposes inappropriate restrictions on the police and that more could be achieved with more liberal use of force.

According to one report, he said there was a need to “review legal structures” and in another he was reported to have said “the debate must include where you draw the line”.

Whatever was intended by these statements, this is a somewhat different and more cautious Zuma from the one who in April 2008 defended Susan Shabangu’s “shoot the bastards” statement, and after his appointment as president in 2009 gave the stamp of approval to the call for forceful policing then being espoused by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and national police commissioner Bheki Cele.

The shift to a more considered approach may therefore be welcomed. But whether any of this is likely to result in progress in reducing the killings of police is another matter.

What has apparently sparked the latest focus is a spike in killings of police on duty. But notwithstanding this spike, 53 percent of the killings this year (31 out of 58) have been killings of police off duty.

In some respects these figures are an aberration. Looking at statistics for the six years ending in March 2015, there has been only one year where off-duty killings have reflected such a low proportion of the total number. In April 2011-March 2012, 53 percent (43) of the 81 killings were also off duty.

But other than in that year, off-duty killings have exceeded 60 percent in every financial year since April 2009. For some reason Zuma’s speech said that “63 officers were killed on duty between April 2014 and March 2015”. But in August the SAPS released figures showing that of the 86 police killed between April 2014 and March 2015 52 (60 percent) were killed off duty.

Notwithstanding the fact that the overall number of killings of police has declined substantially since the 1990s, this pattern has been a robust feature of the killings of police in South Africa.

Of the 2,591 police (an average of 215 per year) killed in the 12-year period between 1991 and 2001, 63 percent (1632) were killed off-duty. Though during the three years from April 2006 to March 2009, the percentage of off-duty killings was in the low 50s, there has not been any year, since 1991 at least, in which on-duty killings have outnumbered those off duty.  

Despite shifts in the exact proportion of police killed off-duty the general pattern for most of the last 25 years has been that three out of every five police who are killed are killed off duty.

There is clearly something else going on here that does not easily fit into the established narrative of cops killed in the line of duty. But despite its professed concern about the killings of police, the SAPS remains unable to provide a coherent account of the circumstances in which police are being killed — in particular why so many are killed off duty.

In understanding these killings it is important to remember that, though police may be officials of the state they are also ordinary South Africans. Many of them die just like ordinary South Africans do. Most murders in South Africa originate from arguments or disputes between people who are often known to each other.

In August the Sunday Times reported that four of the five female police killed this year had been killled by their romantic partners. In each of these cases the assailant subsequently committed suicide, with two of them being police constables. This suggests then that women in the police are more at risk from their romantic partners, including romantic partners in the police, than from other ‘criminal’ assailants.

But it is not only female police who may be killed in arguments. A 1998 report on killings of police for instance found that off-duty killings included ‘arguments’ in 29 percent of cases, and ‘love triangles’ in 6 percent of cases. Of those killed, 16 percent “had to some degree been intoxicated when the murders occurred”. In this and another study of police killings from that time perpetrators were found to be other police members between 6 percent and 9 percent of the time.

Apart from those killed in arguments, many off-duty police are likely to be ‘ordinary’ victims of crime. It is frequently asserted, including by the SAPS itself, that police are deliberately targeted for their firearms. A report dealing with killings of police in the late 1990s found that firearms were stolen in 15 percent of all (on- and off-duty) police killings. By comparison the Sunday Times report in August indicated that, according to the SAPS, only four out of 55 (7 percent) of police killed up to that point in 2015 had had their firearms taken.

Even when police are victims of robbery this does not necessarily involve the theft of their firearms. On the same day as the SAPS National Commemoration Day another police officer, Sergeant Xola Sowambi, was killed on his way to report for duty at Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape in what appeared to be a vehicle hijacking. Sowambi’s official firearm and watch were found nearby. The initial reports therefore suggest that Sowambi was attacked, not because he was a police officer, but because he had a car.  

Rather than being targeted because they are police, off-duty police may be prone to attack because they are part of the group of people who are relatively affluent as a result of the fact that they enjoy stable incomes, but who live and work in high-crime areas, and who as a result are at high risk of robbery and other crime.

The likelihood of homicide during a robbery is also enhanced by resistance and lack of cooperation by the victim. Possibly, related to their occupational identity and associated machismo, police victims of robbery may tend to resist their assailants, in so doing increasing their risk of violent death.

The circumstances of killings on duty and off duty are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Police may die in arguments while on duty. A case that illustrate this is that of Major Thomas Moetlo, one of four victims in an incident at Alexandra police station in June. Moetlo was assisting the girlfriend of another police officer to open a case of domestic violence when the police officer, Constable Ronnie Masie, charged into the police station killing Moetlo, his girlfriend and two others. Masie was then killed in an exchange of fire with other police.  

Some police who are killed on duty may therefore be victims of arguments or robberies. However, most on-duty killings are related to interventions by police such as during robberies or when police are pursuing robbery suspects. They would also include other situations such as vehicle stops and even interventions in domestic or other disputes.

But off-duty police may also be killed when intervening in crimes that are taking place. One factor that increases the risk of police killings in South Africa may be that police are said to be subject to a vaguely defined ’24-hour rule’. In terms of the ‘rule’ there is an expectation that police who are off duty and who encounter crimes in progress, will intervene. The SAPS describes this as where off-duty police “place themselves on duty”.

Many police departments in the US in fact warn police against interventions of this kind. According to William Geller and Michael Scott, two American authorities on the use of force by police, police are often at a tactical disadvantage while off duty. Amongst the reasons for this are that police are out of radio contact with other officers, and most likely not wearing bullet-proof vests. These were in fact also identified as reasons for the vulnerability of off-duty police in the 2009 SAPS annual report

As a result of the disadvantages that they face when intervening while off duty, many police agencies in the US advise their members to take a far more prudent approach to crimes which they encounter in progress. Where it appears unlikely that the police officer will be able to deal with the situation, he or she should rather see his or her obligations as, where possible, to call in support.

However, though these interventions may be ill-advised, in the SAPS itself the merits of the 24-hour rule have never been questioned and the SAPS encourages police to intervene in situations of this kind.

Despite its more measured nature, Zuma’s speech does not in any way acknowledge the complexities of the issue of police killings. Instead the realities of the issue are subordinated to mobilising police loyalty to the state using the idea of reciprocal duties between them.

“The callous murder of your loved ones was an attack not only on them, but on the state itself,” Zuma speech says. “The police represent the authority of the state. They form the bulwark between order and anarchy. The police require the support of the state to ensure that they are strengthened and fortified to be able to respond to crime head on, to protect not only themselves but the nation as a whole.”

In concluding his speech, Zuma said to the families of the deceased police officers: “Your loved ones have paid a supreme price for peace and stability. Their contribution to building a safer South Africa will always be remembered by all your compatriots.”

Zuma’s address then relies on a mythology in which the killing of police are above all a story of police who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ while fighting crime.

There are countless dead who are worthy of being honoured in South Africa. In honouring these it is indeed appropriate to reserve a special place for police who have been killed in the line of duty.

But addressing the killings of police will require a willingness to move beyond this one-dimensional narrative and allow for greater complexity in our understanding of the issue. DM

Photo:   REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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