Since the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) started operating three years ago in April 1997 over 2100 people have died as a result of police action or in police custody. Despite the high number of these deaths however there appears to be little concern about them from either the public or police management. This lack of concern appears to reflect a widespread belief that these deaths do not matter because they are the deaths of criminals.
With a few exceptions there has also been limited interest in or understanding of these deaths by the media. Newspaper headlines consistently refer to these deaths under the misleading heading of "deaths in custody" . In fact of the more than 2100 deaths recorded by the ICD roughly 70% (about 1500) have been deaths "as a result of police action" outside of custody. Most of these are the result of shootings or other uses of force by the police.
Roughly 30% (about 600) of the deaths therefore are those of people who have died in police custody. About 12% of deaths in custody (about 70 of the 600) are also the result of uses of force by police members in custody. The two major causes of deaths in custody are however not police uses of force but firstly suicide and secondly wounds received as a result of assaults or shootings by members of the public of people who are subsequently taken into custody. Other significant causes of deaths in custody are alcohol or other substance abuse or the deceased person's medical condition.
The use of force by the police, particularly shootings, is therefore overwhelmingly the main cause of the deaths which are investigated by the ICD. Tackling the problem presented by the high number of these deaths therefore primarily involves addressing the issue of police use of force. This firstly requires that issues regarding the legislative framework, particularly section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act which regulates the use of force in affecting arrest, urgently be addressed.
But addressing issues to do with the legislative framework is only one step. Crucially important is also the issue of addressing the values of SAPS members particularly in relation to the importance of protecting human life.
Police action and custody deaths occur in all countries. However in South Africa there are an exceptionally large number of these deaths. The problem of the high number of these deaths is related to broader problems in South Africa which include high levels of violent crime and large numbers of attacks on and murders of police members. One factor which contributes to these problems is a deeply rooted disregard for the value of human life.
Part of building a peaceful and less violent country involves building respect for and value for human life amongst South Africans. One way in which the police themselves can contribute to this is through addressing the issue of preventing police action and custody deaths. Protecting and defending human life should be understood as central to the role and values of the police.
At the same time it must be acknowledged that high levels of violent crime place major demands on the police in terms of the use of force. Ensuring police professionalism means that the police will be assisted to meet the challenge presented by high levels of violent crime in a manner which seeks to minimise the cost in terms of police and other human lives.
Measures which are adopted to prevent police action and custody deaths should be linked to measures intended to promote the safety of SAPS members. In particular the focus on the use of force should integrate a concern with the safety of the police with measures to promote the prevention of these deaths.
Other measures which can assist the police in preventing deaths as well as in ensuring their own safety include in-service training and better access to non-lethal weapons. The current SAPS system for the investigation of shooting incidents can also be improved both to assist members to learn how to avoid the unnecessary use of force and to improve police safety.
There is little doubt that many of these deaths can be prevented by improving police practice in relation to the use of force and the management and care of persons in custody. Placing greater emphasis on providing rapid medical care to injured and sick persons in custody is another one of the readily implementable types of measures which can contribute to reducing the rate of these deaths. Improved standards in relation to securing and searching people who are taken into custody can also assist specifically in preventing deaths in police custody.
It is clear that some of these deaths are caused by unlawful police actions and there is therefore clear value in investigation and monitoring by the ICD. What needs to be recognised however is that while the ICD plays an important role by investigating these deaths the problem primarily needs to be addressed by improving practice within the SAPS.
The ICD is required by law to investigate all of these deaths. As a result they tend to be seen as the "ICD's responsibility". In order for the number of these deaths to be reduced, responsibility for prevention needs to be shared by all concerned. This includes commitment from SAPS management and ordinary SAPS members to improving SAPS practice in preventing deaths.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in the Sowetan, 14 April 2000.