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Pretoria - While the court is “keenly aware” that it must not condone “trigger-happiness” by the police, it cannot set such unrealistic standards that officers cannot properly attend to their most important function – to bring criminals to book.
This was the comment of a Johannesburg High Court judge, who came to the defence of the police in a civil case where a suspect claimed damages after a bullet ricocheted and hit him in the foot while he was running away from the cops.
The court earlier found the police liable for the damages suffered by Peter Kabelo and that the officer who had shot him, acted negligently.
At the time Kabelo told the court he was hit in the foot when a detective tried to arrest him in Soweto on September 7, 2009.
The policeman testified that he had been investigating two charges of assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm at the time. The victim had suffered serious wounds.
Acting on a tip-off by a reliable informant, the policeman went to Soweto, where he and the informant drove through the streets, looking for the culprit.
The informer pointed out Kabelo and the policeman went and introduced himself. But the man started running away.
The policeman, realising he could not catch him on foot, got back into his vehicle and chased him.
He told Kabelo all the time to stop, but when he kept on running, the policeman fired a single warning shot into the ground. The bullet ricocheted and hit Kabelo in the foot. This was corroborated by the fact that there was merely a remnant of a bullet later removed from the man’s foot, he testified.
Having been hit, Kabelo stopped running and was arrested.
The policeman noticed blood oozing from his shoe and realised he had been shot.
He took the man to hospital.
Kabelo admitted that he ran away, but said “this was because the cop was going to arrest him if he stayed there”. He explained that he was “about to smoke a zol of dagga” which was still in his hand at the time when he first noticed the cop.
He said he was afraid of being charged for being in possession of dagga. He, however, still clutched the “zol” after he was shot at and arrested, and the cop had to take it from him.
Judge Nigel Willis said the policeman was “incontestably” the better witness, as Kabelo at first said he was shot in the back, then in the thigh and after some prompting, admitted it was in the foot.
The officer, after being questioned by the court, said he fired the shot towards the ground , as it was safer than firing into the air.
The court earlier found that, although the policeman did not shoot Kabelo intentionally, he acted negligently in the circumstances and that the Minister of Police was thus liable for the damages.
But Judge Willis said the the fact that the bullet ricochet was not a reasonable foreseeable possibility.
Having made a decision to arrest Kabelo, using such force as was reasonable to prevent him from fleeing, the cop acted reasonably under the circumstances, he said.
It has meanwhile emerged that Kabelo was not charged with the assaults as he could not be linked to them.