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Three days after a police officer was found killed by two inmates at a police station, the police still do not know what happened.
The inmates fled from the Katlehong police station in Ekurhuleni after the killing.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Unions (Popcru) is conducting its own investigations into the death of Warrant Officer Lennox Latha, 52, because it is not happy with the answers given by the SAPS.
And the SA Police Union (Sapu) is worried at what it sees as an upsurge in attacks on officers at police stations.
Sapu spokesman Solly Bulala said they had complained about security at police stations.
He believed a contributing factor was the shortage of manpower, which left officers taking risky decisions that might end up costing them their lives.
That was compounded by the discontinuation of a government contract to hire private security to guard police stations countrywide.
Latha’s body was found in a toilet after he was attacked by two inmates at the Katlehong police station on Sunday night. At the time, Latha was investigating a call from the cells. He was said to have been strangled with a piece of blanket cut into pieces.
Bulala said procedure dictated that two or more officers go and check up on prisoners in the holding cells every hour.
However, when there were not enough officers in a police station, an officer might have to go alone.
“Many officers we have spoken to say they are under tremendous pressure due to a shortage of staff, hence they go alone in some instances. In the meantime, they compromise their security and bypass procedure in the name of doing their jobs.
“This is a concern to us as a union, and we try to tell our members that they should be extra careful.
“Some of the weapons found when the cells are searched – it’s very scary.”
Last year, Bulala said, a prisoner bit off the finger of a police officer in the holding cells at a police station in Tzaneen, Limpopo.
“He just held on to the finger and bit it until it fell.
“Police who were there tried to get him off but they could not, and neither could they shoot him because had they done so, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate would have been on their case, saying the prisoner was harmless,” Bulala said.
Provincial police spokeswoman Colonel Noxolo Kweza said it was not clear how Latha was killed because he went alone to investigate the call from the cells, although a colleague was on duty with him.
She could not say whether Latha opened the cells when he got there.
“We are not sure what happened. All we know is that prisoners escaped, and we have to know how they opened the door, because they don’t have keys. The keys are with us.”
Popcru spokeswoman Theto Mahlakoana said they felt the recorded sequence of events left many questions unanswered. The union wanted to know how “the evil plans of the inmates succeeded while other officers were in the station”.
“We hope that whatever findings we come across will inform our submission to the South African Police Service on ways to ensure that the safety of officers deployed isn’t compromised.”
The government spent R161 million in the 2009/2010 financial year on 48 security companies to guard police stations across the country.
This was after it was found that the security was too lax and it was better for police to focus on fighting crime and other duties.
The contract was terminated early this year.
According to Popcru, police officers are now deployed to protect stations.
Police officers said then that they did not know what led to the termination of the security company’s contract, but felt safer with their colleagues manning the entrance to the police station.
“Those guys (security guards) never showed any enthusiasm for their job,” said an officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.