Saturday, January 14, 2012

South Africa: Armed and Dangerous

Source: ISS

Armed and Dangerous

Ben Coetzee, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime, Pretoria Office

People who possess firearms in South Africa can generally be separated into three categories. The first group consists of individuals in possession of duly registered firearms. The next group is of greater concern. They are the people who are in illegal possession of firearms. Not all people who possess firearms that are, according to the letter of the law, illegal are violent criminals.

However, even this armed group is less of a concern than the last type. The third category is reserved for the armed forces, the protectors of State sovereignty and the keepers of the peace. What is most concerning about this group is that they come into contact with firearms on a daily basis and with daily exposure, comes a certain amount of disrespect for the capabilities of firearms. Disrespect is quickly followed by disregard for firearm safety procedures and the responsibilities that every person in possession of a firearm should continuously keep in mind.

The State is faced with the impossible challenge of ensuring the safety of citizens and, by extension, the safety of their employees from violent crime. It is therefore reasonable to have armed police officers ready to act on threats to the public. The State, having made the decision to arm police officers, also assumes responsibility for said officers’ actions. Including the use of their service weapons whether the officers are on duty or not.

This challenge is compounded by the stressful circumstances of the job this group is required to do. They are exposed to the results of crime. Daily they witness and experience the worst of what people are capable of doing to one another. They are expected to resolve volatile issues while continuously being aware that they might suddenly become the target of violent crime themselves. Hundreds of their colleagues are murdered each year in the line of duty and there is no guarantee that they will not be the next victims.

The consequences these conflicting factors can be found in the mainstream media. There were no less than ten incidents, for the month of December 2011, where trained law enforcement officers,, presumably psychometrically evaluated for psychological deviancies, used their service weapons to shoot and kill unlawfully.

5 December 2011: Karoo cop shoots female colleague.

6 December 2011: Police constable committed suicide with his service pistol.

8 December 2011: An Ulundi policeman lost faith in the criminal justice system after his baby daughter was raped – and now he will spend the rest of his life in jail for murdering two fellow police officers and the alleged culprit.

10 December 2011: Off-duty officer shoots three, police shoot him.

13 December 2011: The police sergeant and driver for the Gauteng Health MEC was shot and killed by police after he went on a shooting spree.

15 December 2011: A police constable committed suicide after wounding his wife four times in the legs.

16 December 2011: Cop opens fire in police station.

22 December 2011: Cop shoots wife, self outside mall.

30 December 2011: Mpumalanga cop kills girlfriend, self.

31 December 2011: Pretoria cop shoots family, kills self

These are the incidents that were brought to the public’s attention because they were deemed newsworthy by the media. Neither the public nor the State would be aware of instances of intimidation that went unreported. It is impossible to determine the number of police officers’ families that are too terrified to report spousal abuse because they are under the impression that the police would not act against their own, or that if the case were registered, their partner would kill them.

What we do know is that our protectors are under severe stress and that some of them act illogically and violently when confronted by any number of circumstances. What the State should recognise is the threat to public safety posed by armed officials that are nearing breaking point.

From cursory analysis of mainstream media reports it would seem that most of the officers that used their firearms illegally were not on duty. These questions then remain – why does the State still allow officers to possess firearms when they are not on duty, and why doesn’t the State take better care of the mental health of law enforcement officials that are sent ‘armed and dangerous’ into the streets?