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Twenty police officers, most of them once members of the Organised Crime Unit in Cato Manor before it was disbanded in February, were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of being a death squad rather than a detection agency.
To relatives of those killed by the unit, and those who have become alarmed at police methods and the number of suspects who do not get to court, the arrests will stir hope.
To South Africans sick of living in fear of the lawless and their vicious acts, and to the many families of police officers killed on and off duty, Wednesday’s drama as police moved against police will create new concerns about the state of the war on crime.
Slightly less troubling than the possibility of a police unit regularly murdering suspects, how-ever, was the clear fear yesterday among these policemen about their treatment in custody. They wanted to be arrested only in the presence of their lawyer. Why?
Because these hard men knew police methods, depending more on extraction than skilled detection? Because they were all too well aware of what can and does happen to a handcuffed prisoner?
Their anxiety showed plain distrust, an expectation that another unit and policemen specially brought to Durban for the arresting operation would deviate from proper procedure. Taking the extraordinary precaution of importing strangers also pointed to the disturbing state of our security agencies, where local colleagues could not be trusted to act by the book.
If there is no trust between police, how can crime-weary citizens be expected to have any faith in them, and the war on crime?
Criminal proceedings have begun against this suspected death squad, and the truth should emerge in open court. Are these vigilante killers or frontline officers facing murderous opponents? We need to know.