SAPS use of deadly force needs addressing – expert report


The South African Police Service (SAPS) has a myriad of issues. The recent July unrest exposed its ability to respond and effectively deal with riots and looting. The unrest also exposed an inability to gather crime intelligence. To correct top-heavy management and lower-level resource issues, the organization is attempting to restructure.

SAPS performance indicators such as ability to hold roadblocks, conduct search operations and confiscate illegal firearms has been, and is declining, according to reports and experts. In a recent presentation, the SAPS revealed ill-discipline is a concern as 686 disciplinary cases were registered against officers in the last financial year (FY).

In the latest damning report for the SAPS, International policing expert Ignacio Cano revealed that the SAPS’s use of lethal force could be another area of concern. Cano said the ratio of civilians killed by police to police killed on duty in South Africa is about 13 to one. According to a 1991 study by New York University law professor Paul Chevigny, when the ratio exceeds ten to one, it goes above the threshold of what is deemed proportionate use of force.

Cano revealed this ratio in a study for the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF). The study analysed data (provided by GroundUp’s Viewfinder accountability journalism project) from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). Viewfinder accessed this database via a public records request in 2018 to conduct data analyses into police brutality as well as the lack of accountability by police. Cano’s study used the sample for deaths caused by police, deaths in police custody, and shooting complaints in the IPID case intake master register for the 2017/18 FY.

Three hundred and ninety people were killed by officers using their firearms in the 2017/2018 FY. Most fatalities occurred in confrontations between police and suspects involved in robberies and hijackings. Seven deaths were attributed to alleged torture by SAPS members.

Twenty deaths occurred in incidents where police fired warning shots. According to Cano, warning shots are bad practice because they are either ineffective in deterring criminals or have the potential to do more harm than good.

In cases of shooting complaints there were 45 incidents of police firing at fleeing suspects. In 11 cases, police killed the suspects. Cano said, “This is a grave violation of basic international principles.”

In 42 cases, SAPS members shot dead suspects armed with knives or other sharp objects. Cano pointed out that less-than-lethal force should be used.

Cano’s report highlighted Kwa-Zulu Natal as the province with the highest number of killings by SAPS members, specifically Umlazi, Inanda, Kwamashu and Pinetown, where five or more killings were registered in the FY.

Brutality by SAPS members is an on-going issue rooted in the history of South Africa’s police. The IPID, who ensure the independent oversight over the SAPS and the Municipal Police Services (MPS), updates parliament annually on data pertaining to torture/assault by SAPS members and police killings, including rape. In the last FY, the IPID made 686 negative recommendations (recommended disciplinary actions) involving 1 270 SAPS members. Of these, 477 were related to torture/assault. 100% of the cases initiated disciplinary proceedings with 550 finalised and 136 pending. Just over half the cases have no prima face evidence (initial evidence to establish facts).

In July 2019, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) launched the National Torture Preventative Mechanism (NPM).

The IPID is a partner in the NPM and announced earlier this year that it will introduce a programme where its investigators will monitor police cells to identify and prevent torture.

The Panel of Experts on Policing and Crowd Management, established in line with the recommendations of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, recommended that Parliament consider a new law to codify the rules that police must adhere to when using force. The basis for such a law already exists in a document called the “Model Bill for Use of Force by Police and other Law Enforcement Agencies in South Africa”, prepared by the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa in collaboration with the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum.

Cano concluded in citing the “Model Bill” and added that the problem may also be in police training.