The SA Police Service is locked in a battle with a union over the removal of firearms from more than 27000 officers found unfit to carry them and the placing of seasoned policemen as security guards.
The SA Policing Union made a successful urgent application late last week for an interdict prohibiting Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and acting national police chief Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi from disarming policemen in all nine provinces who have been declared unfit to handle guns.
Though the union acceded to plans to remove weapons from officers who have been found by the courts to be a danger to their colleagues and the public, its general secretary, Oscar Skommere, said it was unhappy at the way in which provincial police management interpreted a memo from Mkhwanazi’s office last month.
Skommere warned that the blanket removal of firearms from these officers would create a perception that none of them were competent to carry firearms. The only way, he said, to resolve the issue was to re-assess the officers’ competency.
The confiscation of guns could, he said, endanger the lives of officers who come face-to-face with hardened criminals daily.
“It is a well-documented fact that South Africa is more of a war zone in terms of the rate that police officers are killed. They are violently attacked whether they are on or off duty. To say leaving police officers without firearms is like sending prey to a lion’s den is an understatement,” said Skommere.
The memo from deputy national commissioner for human resources Magda Stander on March 30 gives an update on national firearms competency.
It states that Mkhwanazi wanted an explanation from provincial and divisional commissioners by April 5 for the authorisation of their police officers to carry firearms after failing competency tests.
The memo is in response to an earlier draft performance audit report, dated December 14, that assessed the quality of police training.
In it, Stander cites the number of officers who failed the competency tests but still carry a firearm.
In Gauteng, 1923 “unfit” officers are still carrying guns, followed by Northern Cape at 1080, Free State 1050, Western Cape 1040, Eastern Cape 520, Limpopo 338, North West 253, Mpumalanga 203 and KwaZulu-Natal 145.
Mkhwanazi has demanded answers on how the provinces will ensure that all officers comply with firearms legislation.
This, however, has led to at least three provinces – North West, Northern Cape and Mpumalanga – implementing different strategies for dealing with officers judged to be unfit to be armed.
“This affects the morale of members and has led to some senseless redeployment,” said Skommere.
A subsequent memo from North West states that 314 officers whose firearms have been confiscated, and whose doctors recommended that they be assigned light duties, would be posted as guards at police facilities.
North West employs 100 security guards for police garages, stock-theft units and police offices at R750000 a month and Mkhwanazi wants to put an end to this.
Earlier this month, Mkhwanazi instructed that contracts for security guards not be renewed and that police officers replace the guards.
Hi s instructions specified that officers were to be in uniform and that rotation must take place to ensure that “all members obtain a balance in terms of skills and to ensure that job satisfaction is achieved”.
In Mpumalanga, it was ordered that the firearms and accessories of 274 officers from various units – including visible policing, public order policing, organised crime and crime intelligence – be withdrawn before March 30 with “no deviation or excuses”.
In Northern Cape, officers were sent a strongly worded memo that stated that any member declared unfit to possesses a firearm but who still had one would be regarded as possessing the firearm illegally.
But this has been temporarily halted after the union won an interdict on Thursday.
“The SAPS is interdicted and restrained from deploying or transferring any SAPS members for the purpose of performing any operational duties without SAPS members being duly assessed and in possession of a competency certificate,” the court said.
The matter has been postponed and will be heard on the opposed-motion roll but, said Skommere: “The SAPS management cannot be allowed to expose our members to violent attacks. The proposed disarmament of police officers because they are so-called ‘not competent’ to carry firearms is not enough.”
Skommere said officers who had been declared incompetent were willing to undergo extra training.
He said the union had decided to go to court after failing to persuade the SA Police Service that its stance was “irrational” in the Safety and Sectoral Bargaining Chamber.
Mthethwa’s spokesman, Zweli Mnisi, said the minister was merely cited as a respondent as he is the chief executive of the police, but that operational and functional matters were dealt with by the SA Police Service.
Mkhwanazi has admitted that not all police officers had undergone firearms training in compliance with legislation. He said he would charge commanders who allowed unfit policemen to carry guns.
MANY ARMED POLICE A MENACE TO ALL
STUDENT constable Sipho Mbatha killed Soweto teenager Thato Mokoka with an R5 rifle on full automatic mode in February.
It later came to light that Mbatha – now facing a charge of murder – had been declared unfit to carry a firearm and had attempted suicide in December.
Mbatha is one of thousands of South African police officers regarded as a danger to society and their colleagues after failing firearms competency tests.
Only a small percentage of those deemed unfit to carry arms were found to be so because of illnesses such as epilepsy, cerebral haemorrhage or “exhaustion”. Most of the 27000 police officers found to be unfit to bear arms were found to be suffering from a serious psychological condition, to have been involved in domestic violence or to have a criminal prosecution pending.
Statistics from North West police paint a picture of a force battling with emotional and psychological disorders affecting members of all ranks – colonels and captains, constables and trainees.
Of the 314 policemen declared unfit to carry a gun in North West, most were diagnosed as suffering from stress, serious depression, bipolar disorder, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, “psychological complaint”, burn-out syndrome, “serious mental health problems” or “headache and stress”.
A significant number have had their gun taken away because of criminal intent or suicidal tendencies.
Criminal intent covers firearms used in serious crimes, threats to shoot other officers, attempted murder, pointing firearms, robbery or intimidation.
Some officers have been declared unfit to carry a firearm because of alcohol abuse or because they are receiving anger-management counselling.
A recent internal police report on the quality of police training said that some officers are assigned to duties with firearms that they are not able to use properly.
“That members cannot utilise their firearms with confidence could lead to an increase in police killings,” the report said.