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The use of force – A tricky subject

Some foreign provincial head with the dignity of a District Council chairperson, stared down presidential security in the nation’s capital. Hip-Hop could never have invented a more obnoxious invective.

Presidential security blinked first. It happened at the cost of the President’s dignity and that of the nation. Batswana are enraged.

My friends say that presidential security should have sent the South Africans home in body bags. I am sure they were capable of doing so. But someone had to be the bigger person and our men and women stepped up to the plate. In the end, the President was delivered safely to his destination, there was no damage to property and no loss of life.  There could not have been a better outcome.

I have always taken interest in the subject of the use of force. In law studies, we try to reenact the faded moment. We develop fancy tests couched in florid hyperbole and try our incompetent best to determine how a fictitious, reasonable man would have acted in the circumstances. Well, I guess there is no other way. I do know, however, that in reality, things are different. Law enforcement officers often work under very trying conditions. Sometimes, they deal with fluid, fast evolving situations permitting no opportunity for leisurely reflection.

Decisions must be taken within fractions of seconds balancing several considerations each exerting itself upon the mind, body and the emotions of the officer with brutal force. The officer must, of course, consider own safety. The instinct of self-preservation will always assert itself. If he is escorting a dignitary, he must consider the dignitary’s safety before his own. He must consider the safety of bystanders, the possibility of damage to property and of igniting an avoidable shootout by miscalculation. In a situation the details of which he had no forewarning, he must measure without the benefit of time, the degree of force necessary to diffuse it. If he puts one foot wrong, he may find himself facing a magistrate in inquest proceedings or worse still, a judge on a murder or grievous bodily harm charge.

Mistakes have been made and lives have been lost before. The best training can help equip one to minimise the chances of error. No amount of training can eradicate the possibility of genuine error. It is very easy for an armchair critic to be wise after the event and to pontificate over what should or should not have been done.

I am reminded of an occurrence in Serowe, some time ago. Some men perished in a shootout with law enforcement officers. At least three lives had been lost with more wounded. Somehow, it appeared remiss to close the chapter of the deceased persons’ lives without an inquest hearing.

Following a

robbery, the deceased had opened fire on a member of the public and on law enforcement officers in a daring bid to get away. 

They never saw it coming. The skied rained fire and brimstone. I chose not to register the matter for inquest until I fully understood what happened. A dutiful young colleague and I had the concerned officers rounded up and for a whole afternoon, we subjected them to interrogation over the incident in order to determine if they had exceeded reasonable force. And then we recommended closure. There was no need to put the officers through the ordeal of inquest proceedings.  The officers had done what needed to be done in the circumstances.

Examples abound. We know about the Kalafatis matter. We know how politicised, it was. Yes, the men were found guilty. The force used was excessive, the judge found. But I have paused to ask myself if it could be true that they thought he was drawing a pistol. If true, there would have been very little time to respond.

 You can’t wait to see the whole of the gun before you react. You are in a melting pot of perception and fluid reality.

A moment’s hesitation and you are lying dead with your gun in your hands. Fire a second too early, and you have the opposition and newspapers all over you saying you should be hanged alongside the President because he pointedly told you to go and commit murder.

And yes, you may go to jail taking your career with you. Now, I do not know if anyone sent the Kalafatis guys to shoot him. It is really sad he died. But I doubted that anyone so briefed would have been stupid enough to shoot him in front of a bar teeming with revelers. The suggestion that the shooting was situational has my sympathy.

We end where we began. The presidential convoy yielded to a fifth grade security detail escorting a fifth grade dignitary. We are all hurt that such indignity was inflicted upon our Head of State. At the same time, we should be proud we have demonstrated such professionalism.

A day may come when a bullet may be fired in the defence of a President or in the assertion of our sovereignty. That day, was not that day. It is important to exemplify dignity, even in the face of so horrendous an insult. We are a continental champion of the rule of law, not some banana republic. Well done Mr. President. Well done to your  boys and girls.


Chief On Friday




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