3 August 2011

Press Statement

CSVR submission to Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development

Call for police use of lethal force to be based on ‘protection of life’ principle 

In the run up to Parliamentary hearings on legislation dealing with the use of lethal force by police the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation has called for the use of lethal force by police to be based on a ‘protection of life’ principle.


The CSVR submission to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development, submitted yesterday, expresses a concern that the Bill providing for amendment of Section 49 provides for an expansion of police powers to use lethal force. Killings by police are currently at high levels in South Africa and it may be anticipated that, if the Bill is passed in its current form, this will intensify the problem of excessive force.


The CSVR submission also argues that expanding police powers to use lethal force will not lead to improvements in police safety and will rather reinforce this problem.


The submission states that it is important that the use of lethal force needs to be based on clear ethical principles and that a protection of life principle is most appropriate in this regard.


‘Essentially it means that deadly force should only be used against a person who is likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to the police officer or another person in the immediate situation (use of deadly force for defence) or in the future (use of deadly force for arrest). Implicitly this would only be appropriate where deadly force is the only means available to prevent this from happening.’


The submission argues that this is important for a number of reasons, not least the interests of police officers who need to be able to deal with the moral consequences of killing people.


Police officers who use deadly force face profound personal consequences including not only trauma but also self doubt about the morality of their actions. In the interests of police themselves it is important that the provisions which empower them to take life be based on clearly understood ethical principles. In asking police to be prepared to take life the state has a responsibility to clearly articulate to them the ethical principles which authorize them to do so. The absence of clearly articulated principles feeds into a lack of clarity about the ethical basis for the use of deadly force. This in turn feeds into the sense of police as a morally compromised and tainted profession who are mere functionaries of the state in enforcement of the law.


The submission further argues that


If policing itself is not based on valuing and protecting human life this feeds into the overall problem of lack of value for human life in society. Basing the use of deadly force on clear ethical principles also has profound internal benefits for police agencies, providing moral reassurance to police officers who are involved in the use of deadly force, as well as feeding into feelings of pride in the policing profession and esprit de corps.


The CSVR submission also argues that the current Act, while articulating a protection of life principle, is poorly drafted. It makes proposals for strengthening the Bill so as to incorporate a protection of life principle as well as in response to police needs for greater clarity to be provided as to when they may, and may not, use lethal force.

Issued by: The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

For further comment contact:

  • David Bruce, Senior Researcher – 082-784-8616
  • Nomfundo Mogapi. – 083 337 1616
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