SAPS officers should write exams in law, human rights

It is argued that some police institutions focus too much on firearm skills and ignore training in less-lethal weapons such as Tasers, says the writer. Picture:

It is argued that some police institutions focus too much on firearm skills and ignore training in less-lethal weapons such as Tasers, says the writer. Picture:

Published Mar 26, 2024


The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which conducted a national investigative hearing into the July 2021 unrest in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, in its recent report dated January 29, 2024, recommended that the SAPS, i.e., the Minister of Police and the National Commissioner, impose, among other things,

i) a standard regarding the use of “less-lethal” weapons in crowd management, and ii) that the SAPS training should be updated to ensure officers are adequately trained in the proper use of “less-lethal” weapons, emphasising de-escalation techniques and proportional force to minimise the risk of human rights violations and excessive use of force.

Body-worn cameras capture what happens. This is likely a solution for the police and the community to ensure the facts are more accurately placed before a court of law. These cameras may also assist the police in reviewing past actions and improving actions in the future to be more compliant with the law. A Taser, on the other hand, assists the police officer in controlling a suspect before the situation escalates.

A case study conducted by Axon (a world leader in de-escalation – less lethal weapons) in France, from 2020 to 2021, by the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) Railway Security indicates a drop of 47% in aggression in agents wearing cameras and a 26% drop for non-carrying agents who worked closely with the agents wearing cameras.

Another case study by Axon, in 2016, of the Durham Regional Police Service concerning body-worn cameras indicates that trust in the police and police accountability has improved. Court processes regarding police conduct were finalised speedily because of the camera footage.

It was also found that providing police officers with body-worn cameras has a substantive effect on investigations of police accountability and it also assisted in reducing racial bias against citizens complaints. The study indicated, furthermore, that the use of body-worn cameras by the police has a significant effect on police accountability because 64% more police officers were likely to be subjected to disciplinary action due to community complaints.

In South Africa, the video footage circulated on social media depicting the assault of civilians by Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s guards resulted in the Members of the SA Parliament (MPs) calling for all police officers to wear body-worn cameras.

The SAPS is currently busy with the procurement process for acquiring body-worn and dashboard cameras.

This is critical for the SAPS, given that according to a survey conducted by the Human Science Research Council and the SA Social Attitudes Survey, the trust in the police is as low as 27% nationally and 22% in the Western Cape.

The camera footage will also contribute to protecting police officers against false complaints and may help citizens who would otherwise not be able to prove unlawful conduct by the police. However, this video footage can also be used against the police.

The effectiveness of these cameras prompted then US president Barack Obama to sign an executive order that earmarked $75 million (approximately R1.4 billion) for the purchase of 50,000 body-worn cameras by police departments in the US. A body-worn camera experiment in Rialto, California, found that more than a 50% reduction in the use of force complaints were received during the experimental period.

However, the roll-out of body-worn and dashboard cameras will have its challenges in terms of costs and management. Resistance from corrupt police officers and those who are known for their brutality will subvert the use of these cameras. Thus, the effectiveness of these cameras in reducing police brutality and corruption and increasing accountability hinges on enforcing good policies, procedures and management, as well as a camera where evidence can’t be tampered with. Acquiring and fully establishing the cameras as a tool of evidence gathering and improving accountability will ultimately require political and bureaucratic will – if there is a commitment to be transparent and strengthen police accountability.

In September 2004, the British parliament approved the use of Tasers throughout England and Wales to be used by Authorised Firearms Officers only. In November 2008, that restriction was lifted, and all officers throughout England and Wales were allowed to use Tasers after receiving training.

The Taser, in a South African context, would serve as an alternative to a firearm in situations that require the use of adverse but not lethal force per se. Currently, South African officers have no alternatives and resort to the use of firearms.

It has been reported that when officers use Taser CEWs (Conducted Energy Weapons), it results in a 70% reduction in officers’ injuries and a 40% drop in suspects’ injuries. It is argued that some police institutions focus too much on firearm skills and ignore training in less-lethal weapons like Tasers, which are less harmful to society. This contention cannot be refuted in the South African context.

Training must be done, on the principle of accountability, for internal police structures and external mechanisms to which the SAPS is answerable and, ultimately, to the community they serve.

Judges in SA with legal qualifications and years of experience, forbidden by the Constitution, may not impose the death penalty, and it may take months, if not years, to determine if a police officer acted within the purview of the legal principles when applying force. Conversely, the right and discretion to limit a life are placed in the hands of police officers who may have only a matric/high school certificate or a person with a lesser qualification.

Therefore, SAPS members should be subjected to compulsory promotion examinations regarding the relevant law, human rights, and national instructions. Senior officers will then be capacitated with the necessary and relevant legal knowledge and skills to provide leadership. Research also indicates that officers with diplomas and degrees are less inclined to use excessive force (police brutality).

* Advocate Max is the former Western Cape police commissioner and a Doctoral of Laws – LLD candidate (The reasons for the police’s use of excessive force...).

Cape Times

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