South Africa’s new top cop, Bheki Cele, wants the law to be changed to allow police to “shoot to kill” criminals without worrying about “what happens after that”.
Speaking exclusively to Weekend Argus on Friday, Commissioner Cele said the police needed to match the firepower of criminals and use “deadly force”.
In the process, he wants to create a country “where people aren’t told they’re safe, but actually feel safe”.
He said the call to revisit section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which provides grounds for justifiable homicide, had been made because police officers currently spent more time working out what the law allowed than actually using it in a quick response.
Section 49 lets police and citizens use deadly force if they have reasonable grounds, which it defines.
Cele said criminals were armed with the best high-calibre firearms “to deal with whoever is standing in their way, so… they are ready to shoot”.
On the other hand, police responding to an attack have to “arrest their minds, thinking is this right or is it wrong? Police must think about what is in front of them and do the job, or else they get killed.”
Cele said the law had placed the burden on individual police officers when faced with using firearms in retaliation, and that he agreed with the Minister of Police that the onus should be on the SAPS as an organisation.
“Don’t make it the problem of the individual,” he said.
He added that if police were to fight crime seriously, they should not have to carry the burden of worrying about what happens next as a result of their actions.
Johan Burger, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, believes Cele’s words are not just hard talk, and that things will in fact change.
“There is a commitment to put in practice what they are saying, and they will look at the act to see if changes can be made that give them more power to use their firearms.
“There might be other changes too.”
Cele’s philosophy on shooting before being shot, which he has preached in KwaZulu-Natal during his time as MEC for community safety, has led to the province having more deaths in police custody under review than any other province during the past year. There were 258 deaths in custody in KZN during 2008/2009 – 83 more than the previous year.
In response to the figures, Cele said he wanted to know whether this breakdown included suicides, natural deaths and people collected by police after being assaulted.
Cele is also on a mission to change the image of the police and boost their morale, something he has been credited with achieving in KZN during his tenure as MEC.
“The problem we are facing is that the police force is seen as a failure organisation. Whoever fails somewhere else will be asked: ‘Why don’t you join the police?’
“The police should be the organisation of the best. We must go to schools and recruit the kids who have done the best in science and tell them there is a growth path here and they can be in laboratories doing forensics and ballistics.
“We should be telling them they will be able to pilot helicopters.”
“We don’t want to create an organisation that is tired from the word go, so if you think that by joining this organisation you are coming to rest, there is no rest here. We are working here.”
Cele said he had spoken to the minster about fat police officers, and reform was definitely on the cards.
There should also be a shoulder for police to cry on, and this support should extend to their families.