Police are still arming criminals, despite ‘plans’ to stop the scourge
Despite measures put in place by the SAPS, firearms meant to be with the police are still landing up in the hands of gang members. Now Parliament is making the matter a priority. But can it solve this convoluted problem?
The deeply rooted problem of firearms moving from cops to criminals will be a particular focus in Parliament in the coming months, as related investigations and court cases develop.
It emerged last month that an audit had revealed that 158 firearms were missing from the exhibit store at the Norwood police station in Johannesburg.
This came after eNCA reported in August 2021 that some firearms discovered in July at a house in Brakpan – where suspects allegedly planning to carry out a cash-in-transit robbery were intercepted in an incident during which a police constable was killed – were traced to the Norwood station.
When South African Police Service (SAPS) officers are involved in gun smuggling, it means they could either directly or indirectly be arming potential, and practising, assassins.
National Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Nomthandazo Mbambo told DM168 last week that the Norwood firearms matter was still under investigation as an inquiry.
The Norwood matter will be discussed in Parliament later this month, and other police firearms issues are also expected to remain a priority. The Portfolio Committee on Police has indicated it will be examining these.
In August 2021, after the attempted insurrection following former president Jacob Zuma’s jailing, Parliament heard there was “a threat against police stations and members, which involved the specific objective of obtaining firearms and ammunition”.
DM168 has established that there are also other problems relating to firearms meant to be with police but ending up with criminals. These include:
- Firearms going missing from police storage known as SAPS 13 exhibit stores. This was previously discussed in Parliament and measures, including limiting access to these stores, were implemented;
- The smuggling of service firearms and firearms that are supposed to be destroyed;
- Corruption and slow processes at the Central Firearm Registry (CFR). A research paper on this presented to Parliament in 2021 said the CFR, which was established to process and monitor firearm ownership through applications and renewals, had been “plagued by challenges, which led to a near collapse of the information technology system behind the CFR”. A turnaround strategy was in place; and
- The creation of fraudulent firearm licences involving broader collusion with figures linked to policing, clubs where proficiency testing is conducted, and private security.
According to the SAPS 2020/21 annual report, 566 SAPS-owned firearms were reported as either lost or stolen in that year, a slight decrease from 672 in 2019/20 and 607 in 2018/19. (Of the firearms lost or stolen in 2020/21, 376 were recovered.)
The SAPS has several operations to tackle firearm smuggling and uses the hashtag #GunsOffTheStreets on social media.
Around the time of the Brakpan incident linked to the Norwood police station, the DA called for an audit of all SAPS exhibit stores and SAPS firearms.
In response to a question about whether other police stations would be audited, national police spokesperson Major-General Mathapelo Peters told DM168 last week: “It would be inappropriate for the SAPS to publicise any planned audit of any environment. For this reason, we cannot give comment on this question, at this stage.”
She said there were plans in place to prevent the theft of state firearms and these were “managed through the development and implementation of relevant National Instructions and the Police Safety Strategy”.
If a criminal was found with a state firearm, an investigation would be conducted into how that had come about.
“Should it be found that such illegal possession is as a result of police colluding with criminals, or sheer negligence, such a member could be subjected to a criminal investigation or departmental process, or both,” Peters said. “A ballistic test is conducted to establish possible linkage between a firearm and previous crime.”
A presentation to Parliament in August 2021 outlined further plans to try to prevent firearm losses.
“The SAPS currently makes use of nine central firearm storage facilities, where firearms identified for disposal are stored prior to destruction. All Commanders were instructed to conduct physical firearm and ammunition inspections during on-duty and off-duty parades,” the presentation said.
Commanders were also “instructed to keep minimum firearms and ammunition in the [community service centre] safes to be issued for operational duties”.
Tina Joemat-Pettersson, chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, said last month that the securing of evidence including firearms needed to be dealt with urgently. “Corrupt police officers must be removed from the service to ensure the credibility of SAPS is retained and maintained,” she said. “There is a need for a broader change management strategy within the SAPS in relation to the administration of firearms.”
The problem of state firearms ending up with criminals goes back decades, and claims of political manoeuvring always tail this issue. Common claims are that political operatives are trying to maintain power by partnering with more overt criminals – much like what happened during apartheid, and with State Capture more recently.
Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear, who was assassinated in September 2020, was among a team of Western Cape police officers investigating how fellow officers were allegedly creating fraudulent firearm licences for criminal suspects. These officers were stationed in various areas in Gauteng – including Norwood.
National Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole, South Africa’s top police officer, is the subject of two criminal complaints relating to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate’s allegations that he did not cooperate with its investigation into why Kinnear was not under any form of protection at the time of his murder. The following are three other key matters where cops have been implicated in either smuggling, stealing or being lax with firearms:
Missing Mitchells Plain firearms
Five police officers were dismissed after 15 handguns went missing from the Mitchells Plain police station’s community service centre in Cape Town between April and August 2017.
As reported by Daily Maverick in April 2021, an arbitration hearing found there was never any evidence against the dismissed officers, and it was recommended that they be reinstated with back pay.
This suggests the officers had been set up and those responsible for the firearms going missing were not held to account.
The arbitration finding said: “It has become a norm that there are allegations that senior officers are … involved in underworld activities… It is a worrying factor that senior police officers are involved in these shenanigans instead of protecting, combating and preventing crimes, as required by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”
It also said that Brigadier Cass Goolam, one of the five officers suspended and later cleared of wrongdoing, had been on a hitlist – as had Kinnear – because he was disrupting firearm smuggling chains.
Goolam was viewed as being aligned to former police officer Jeremy Vearey, who had investigated several issues relating to gun smuggling and gangsters.
Cop collusion complicates gang gun licence case
In June 2014, suspected 28s gang boss Ralph Stanfield was arrested, along with his wife, Nicole, sister Francisca and three Central Firearm Registry police officers – Priscilla Mangyani, Billy April and Mary Cartwright.
Vearey had been involved in investigating this case, which was provisionally withdrawn in 2016 but later reinstated. The core of it was that cops allegedly created fraudulent firearm licences
Court papers from December 2019 linked to the Stanfield matter said: “It was complicated by the number of suspects in different provinces and the suspected involvement of present and past members of the SAPS.”
Project Impi and Chris Prinsloo
And then there is Project Impi and the policing scandal that developed from that.
In December 2013, two police officers then based in the Western Cape – Vearey and Peter Jacobs (widely viewed as being aligned to Kinnear) – launched Project Impi, which became known as the guns-to-gangs investigation.
It emerged, via related court processes, that in the Western Cape between 2010 and 2016, firearms smuggled from police officers to gangsters had been used in 1,666 murders and 1,403 attempted murders. At least 261 children were shot.
In June 2016, despite the critical investigation they were heading, both Vearey and Jacobs were effectively demoted in the Western Cape.
That same month, former police officer Chris Prinsloo was sentenced to an effective 18 years in jail for selling firearms that ended up with gang members in the Western Cape. The firearms had been in police storage and were meant to be destroyed.
In an October 2016 affidavit, Vearey warned that police could be held liable for crimes committed with the firearms. Project Impi had been “decimated on the orders of SAPS management”, he said.
“This has the opposite effect to what is in the interest of SAPS, their constitutional mandate and the public interest.”
Vearey has since been controversially fired from the police service over Facebook posts and Jacobs, previously head of the country’s Crime Intelligence, was effectively demoted again.
A court case stemming from their Prinsloo investigation, involving two other accused, is yet to reach trial phase.
According to court papers from February 2021, Prinsloo “agreed to become a State witness in [that] trial”.
But matters surrounding Prinsloo are murky. Daily Maverick reported in October 2020 that he had been released on parole after serving only four years of his sentence.
In a December 2020 response to Parliamentary questions about Prinsloo, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola explained, without naming him, that he had qualified for remission of sentence, which reduced his sentence by one year.
“He then became eligible to be considered for parole as part of the Special Parole Dispensation and his placement on parole was approved by the parole board.”
Prinsloo was placed in witness protection. But photographs purportedly of him were leaked to the media towards the end of 2020, so it appears his cover was blown, raising concerns about how this came about.
Questions still linger, meanwhile, about the firearms that Prinsloo sold. Some of these have apparently never been traced and it is unclear whether they are still passing between the hands of criminals. DM168
Following the guns-to-gangs trail
In 1993, Hard Livings gang boss Rashied Staggie said cops sold their service firearms to the gang and falsely reported the weapons as stolen. Staggie, suspected of previously working with apartheid police, was assassinated in December 2019. His words, of cops colluding with criminals over firearms, echo in several subsequent cases:
Suspected 28s gang boss Ralph Stanfield is arrested, along with two relatives and three Central Firearm Registry cops. Allegations are that cops created fraudulent firearm licences for suspects. The charges against Stanfield and his co-accused are later withdrawn, then reinstated and more suspects added to the case.
Former cop Chris Prinsloo is sentenced to an effective 18 years in jail after admitting to selling about 2,000 firearms, meant to have been destroyed, allegedly to a businessman accused of smuggling the weapons to gangsters.
Jeremy Vearey and Peter Jacobs, the lead police investigators in the matter, are demoted and later argue that this derailed the overall investigation.
April to August 2017
Fifteen handguns go missing from the Mitchells Plain police station’s community service centre in Cape Town. Five cops are dismissed, but it is later found they should be reinstated. Meanwhile, a 9mm pistol is found in rubble in gang hotspot Manenberg, and another is found in the possession of a gangster from there. Both firearms are traced to the Mitchells Plain theft.
Eighteen firearms are stolen from the police exhibit store in Bellville South in Cape Town. A suspect is later arrested in Belhar and found with a .357 revolver that was stolen from the exhibit store.
Police announce at least 21 people, including cops, are allegedly involved in a syndicate creating fraudulent firearm licences for criminals. Suspects had approached cops in areas including Edenvale, Norwood and Kempton Park in Gauteng. Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear is among those investigating this syndicate.
Kinnear is assassinated.
In Brakpan, Gauteng cops intercept a group of suspects allegedly planning a cash-in-transit robbery. During the incident, 19 suspects are arrested, two are killed and a policeman is shot dead. Nine firearms are seized. eNCA reports that some of the firearms have been traced to the Norwood police station.
It is reported that 158 firearms are missing from the Norwood police station’s exhibit store and the head of the station resigns.
(Sources: BBC documentary Cape of Fear; Hawks presentation to Parliament, November 2017; SAPS statement; eNCA and court papers)
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.