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Tuesday's summit on the killings of police once again brought this emotional issue to the forefront of public attention.

What is not widely known is that the 136 killings in 2002 were in fact the lowest number of these killings since 1993, when 280 police were killed. But the killings remain at an unacceptably high level with a high proportion of them taking place when police are off duty.

The killings have been the subject of a number of research studies over the last few years mostly linked to the work of a task team established by the Minister of Safety and Security in May 1999.

The picture that has emerged is that most police who have been killed have been black police members who have been killed by black male assailants in areas where most of the inhabitants are black.

However one issue which is not clarified is whether black members are more vulnerable to killings than white members. These patterns may for instance simply reflect the fact that the majority of police are black and that the majority of police are deployed in predominantly black communities.

The studies conducted so far indicate that the killings of police mostly fall into one of three types of circumstances.

Category 1: Killings in response to police intervention - These are generally situations where members of the police service are on duty, though they also include situations where they are off duty and 'place themselves on duty'. Police initiate their involvement in these types of situation as part of their police duties. The motivation of the killer is these incidents is usually to avoid being identified or apprehended by the police.

Category 2: Robberies and other attacks - these include attacks on members who are on duty and members off duty both in and out of uniform and may be related to the fact that the victim is a police officer, the targeting of an individual such as the investigating officer in a specific case, or a random act of crime. Incidents where police are attacked and killed for their firearms fall into this category.

Category 3: Killings in domestic, recreational or occupational circumstances relating to a dispute or argument to which the police officer is party - these include situations where police become involved in arguments in bars or with people in their families, people with whom they have been romantically involved, colleagues or others.

While some of the killings in category 3 may be described as attacks, they also involve confrontations where the killer is acting in self-defence, or both people contribute to the conflict. In these situations the police officer is killed as a result of being involved in an argument or dispute and the consequent heated emotions and not as a result of carrying out police responsibilities. Not only police but others, such as lovers or rivals, are sometimes killed by police members in these types of confrontations.

The majority of the killings of police are deliberate and unlawful and may therefore be classified as murders. However the killings recorded, particularly those in category 3, include some where police officers have been the aggressors. Not all of the killings are therefore strictly 'murders' as some appear to be acts of self-defence. A very small number of police have also been killed while themselves committing crimes such as bank robberies.

The studies which have been conducted have helped to shed some light on the types of situations in which police have been killed. But there are important questions which have not been fully answered. In particular the research has not provided a proper answer to the question about why so many police are killed while off duty.

Some studies for instance suggest that the highest number of police deaths occur during police interventions when police are carrying out their duties (category 1).

But if most police are killed off-duty (consistently over 60% of killings) it does not make sense that most killings should be in response to police intervention unless police are doing more of their work off duty than on duty.

One of the factors which has attracted the most interest is to what extent killings are linked to attacks where police are robbed of their pistols. While research has indicated that this is a factor in up to 15% of police killings, the research has not clarified whether there is a greater risk of these attacks when police are on or off duty.

What is likely is that there are significant differences in patterns of killings. Category 1 (police intervention) probably make up most of the killings on duty. On the other hand killings in robberies and other attacks (category 2) and disputes (category 3) are likely to make up a bigger proportion of killings off duty.

While killings which occur on duty can be addressed through improved training and through for instance providing bullet-proof vests to police, the high number of deaths which occur off duty present a more complex problem.

But improved research is needed before this problem can be fully understood. This is especially important in relation to the issue of whether improved control over the carrying by police of firearms while off duty can make a significant contribution in reducing these deaths.

Year Total Number Killed Number Killed on Duty Number Killed off Duty
1991 164 65 99
1992 253 116 137
1993 280 104 176
1994 265 84 181
1995 240 84 156
1996 222 76 146
1997 244 90 154
1998 235 91 144
1999 204 81 123
2000 185 60 125
2001 163 67 96
2002 136 41 95
Total 2591
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
In Sowetan, 27 May 2003, under the title: More police killed off duty than on.

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