SA police use unacceptably high levels of force, say international researchers

Gill Gifford Senior journalist
A member of the SAPS calls a Hillbrow resident to order with instructions to follow lockdown regulations. File photo.
A member of the SAPS calls a Hillbrow resident to order with instructions to follow lockdown regulations. File photo.
Image: Alaister Russel/Sunday Times

New research into the excessive use of lethal force by the police has found that SA scores above an accepted threshold for the use of force.

The research, conducted by the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF), Network for African Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) and the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, was released on Tuesday.

The excessive use of force by the police or by armed forces performing functions of public security is a challenge that not only points to the existence of serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial killing, but also includes situations where lethal force by public agents may not have been illegal, but could have been avoided.

Understanding the use — and abuse — of lethal force, what drives it and possible strategies to limit it, were the critical issues explored by the researchers. Together they worked to measure the incidence of use of force and found that SA scores well above the accepted threshold for use of force.

Researcher Prof Ignacio Cano of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence from the State University of Rio de Janeiro said the excessive, unaccounted for and unregulated use of force was a concern as it led to incidents such as the death of George Floyd, which had sparked other events.

While deaths at the hands of the police happened globally, the “acceptable” threshold for this was measured by comparing the number of police deaths to the deaths of suspects or civilians as a result of police action.

“Obviously we accept that the police are better protected, they are properly trained and they wear bulletproof vests, so they are less likely to be killed. But you need to look at the proportionality of the deaths of those killed by the police — you can get an overview of whether the force being used is excessive,” Cano said, explaining that the internationally accepted threshold was set at 10 civilians lost for every policeman or woman.

“In SA the ratio is 1:12.6 which is excessive, but not as high as we see in places like South America where it is 1:57 in Brazil and 1:100 in El Salvador.”

KwaZulu-Natal is a huge area of concern. Last year alone 1,000 people died at the hands of the police just in that province.
Chris Nissen, SAHRC commissioner

Chris Nissen, a commissioner from the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said he believed that the report should be presented to parliament, as his organisation had been looking into the issue of lethal force in the Western Cape only, while the new findings covered the entire country.

“What also came up is that KwaZulu-Natal is a huge area of concern. Last year alone 1,000 people died at the hands of the police just in that province,” he said.

Independent researcher David Bruce said the report reflected the fact that SA has better data on fatalities than it has on people who have been injured or permanently paralysed or hurt by the police.

“Of the data we have on deaths in police custody, many of these are suicides or deaths that can be linked to natural causes,” he said, warning against alarmist reporting of high death figures.

“We need to acknowledge that this report represents good news in that it shows that the police mostly adhere to the legal standards on the use of firearms and doesn’t support the view that there is indiscriminate use of lethal force by the SAPS.”

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