Law enforcement officers carrying their guns while off duty are at risk of being exposed to theft, suicides and family homicides.
This is according to Gun Free South Africa’s Adele Kirsten, who said research, nationally and globally, has shown that it is not safe for cops to have their service pistols on them outside of work.
Kirsten said South Africa was faced with a problem of police killings, with most of the officers being attacked while off-duty.
Attacks on officers result in their firearms being taken away by criminals, and in some cases they are used to kill them. Kirsten said, preventing the scourge of attacks on law enforcement officers would require an audit to establish which cops need to be armed, even when they were not on duty.
“To start from evidence, there [are] two or three cases that guide us. A couple of years ago, it was found that more police officers are killed off duty than on duty, and that’s significant because the question is whether they were deliberately targeted for their weapons. There is not enough research on exploring the motives,” says Kirsten.
While the South African Police Union (SAPU) believes it is necessary for officers to carry their guns for safety reasons, even when they are off-duty, Kirsten says a policy needs to be adopted to control the movement of the firearms.
According to SAPU secretary Tumelo Mogodiseng, police officers have a duty to act on crimes that they may come across while they are off duty.
While there have been cases of family homicides by officers who use their police guns, Mogodiseng said the union believed these were due to the collapse of the Employee Health and Wellness Programme (EHWP) within SAPS.
“It (EHWP) is ineffective. If EHWP could be revived and be effective, it would be much easier to identify and assist those officers prior to them killing anyone and committing suicide,” he said.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said while the issue of off-duty officers carrying firearms was complex, the weapons were issued to them as tools of trade for policing. The union said because there were safes provided for the officers, they were not expected to take their guns to places such as those of entertainment.
“But in the case that criminal activities occur in their presence, they can act. Many police [officers] have recently been attacked, and even off-duty police killed. The reality is that, even if they are off-duty, they still are regarded as police,” said Popcru spokesperson Richard Mamabolo.
According to a report brief compiled by Gun Free SA, which summarised data on police killings from 2010/11 to 2016/17, most police killings happen when members are off duty. The report shows that the number of police officers killed in South Africa was high, averaging 83 officers a year or seven a month.
The report said the number has remained relatively stable since 2010/11, despite a range of interventions to reduce police killings since this time.
According to researcher David Bruce, there has not been a single year since 1991 in which on-duty police killings outnumbered off-duty deaths.
“SAPS remains unable to provide a coherent account of the circumstances in which police are being killed – in particular why so many are killed off duty” Bruce says in the report.
The report by Gun Free SA also states that SAPS members mostly at risk of committing suicide are aged between 30 and 34 years, with the most common causes of suicide being because of relationship problems (this includes both private and workplace relationships), financial difficulties, disciplinary issues in the workplace, psychiatric conditions, and substance abuse.
While there are the EHWP services, the organisation says research has showed that members refuse to use the services because they are perceived as “a sign of weakness”.