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.
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.
“When we came out of our room the gun was already in his hand,” she said. “It was so big – he would never have been able to handle a gun like that, he was just a boy. He wanted to be a doctor.”
Today, the family home is heavily fortified with electric fences and metal bars across the windows and doors: “It’s for the police, not the criminals,” Mrs. Ndlovu explains. “We’re always afraid they’ll come back.”
Other extrajudicial killings the unit allegedly carried out include one of a taxi firm owner gunned down in a car chase after he took out a court restraining order to prevent them from killing him. Another was of an armed robbery suspect who hid in a rubbish bin after seeing his friend shot dead by the same unit.
'We live in a violent society'
The unit’s overall commander, Major-General Johan Booysen, who oversees serious crime policing in Durban’s KwaZulu Natal Province, also faces prosecution on the grounds that he ought to have known about their activities and stopped them.
He insists that the high death rates were inevitable given the unit’s line of work. “We live in a violent society and the Cato Manor unit was dealing with hardened criminals,” he says.
He conceded that there were “gray areas” in some of the fatal shootings, but pointed to the high numbers of police officers killed in the line of duty.
“It’s easy for us, who were not there, to debate whether an officer fired too quick or too slow. Hindsight is 20/10 but a lot of people are in their graves now because they were too cautious,” he said.
The Cato Manor unit has a large group of supporters, who claim that without them, violent criminals in Durban will be given a free pass.
Better ways to police
The case has also sparked intense debate in South Africa about how tough its citizens want their police to be. Johan Burger, from the Institute for Security Studies, said there was no evidence that the use of excessive force by police brought down violent crime.
“Police have cut robbery rates by infiltrating crime syndicates and through more visible policing,” he says. “You could argue that if police resort to vigilante activity, it will just harden the attitudes of criminals.”
He said the law on the use of lethal force in South Africa was clear – but that politicians muddied the waters with tough-talk.
“That is dangerous because police officers might believe their conduct will be tolerated or protected because of the seriousness of violent crime in South Africa and the impatience of their political masters about the situation,” he said.