South African police unit prosecuted for fighting violence with thuggery
The elite South African police unit operating in Durban had previously won praise for its high arrest and conviction rates of dangerous criminals.
Durban, South Africa
An elite South African police unit that has previously won praise for its high arrest and conviction rates of dangerous criminals is facing prosecution over accusations it was operating a death squad that executed suspects with impunity.Skip to next paragraph
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The Durban Violent and Organised Crime Unit, or Cato Manor police, as it is also known, is famous in the eastern seaside city for its high-speed car chases, energetic shootouts, and seemingly fearless operatives.
In a country like South Africa, whose violent crime rates continue to be among the highest in the world despite some gains in recent years, their tough stance was encouraged by politicians and police chiefs. They have spoken of a “shoot to kill” policy and encouraged officers threatened by gun-toting criminals to “take them to the nearest mortuary.”
But when photographs emerged of the Cato Manor police waving their pistols and appearing to celebrate their “kills” with barbecues and beers – scenes that echoed the actions of the apartheid security forces who executed political rivals – there was a public outcry. Following on the heels of the shooting by police of 34 striking miners in the country’s platinum belt in August, the incidents have raised new questions about how far law enforcement should go to keep the peace – and whether excessive force stems violent crime.
A troubling pattern
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IDIP) examined each of the 45 shootings of criminal suspects by the Cato Manor unit in the past three years. Although the officers involved had been exonerated by inquests on each occasion, IPID said that when it looked at them together, a pattern emerged.
“Firearms that shooting victims had allegedly threatened or shot at police with never worked, had never been fired, or didn’t match the ammunition found with them,” says Moses Dlamini, IPID’s spokesman. “Some of the people killed were never police suspects in the first place.”
IPID says that the unit executed suspects in cold blood, then planted guns, doctored crime scenes, and intimidated witnesses to cover up what they had done.
Thirty officers have been suspended from duty and are due before a court next week to face 116 charges, including 28 of murder and others of defeating the ends of justice, unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition, and theft from the shooting victims. Editor's Note: The original story misstated the number of murder charges.
Among the alleged murder victims was 16-year-old Kwazi Ndlovu, who was shot dead by armed police in April 2010 as he dozed in front of the television in his parents' living room.
His mother, Lindiwe, an accountant, said police told them they had been looking for an escaped convict and that Kwazi had threatened them with a gun.