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Durban - A failure to replace bulletproof vests after their expiry date is putting the lives of members of the police force on the line.
Compounding matters, hundreds of policemen and women across the country are reported not to have been issued with the potentially life-saving vests.
The DA’s spokeswoman on police matters, MP Diane Kohler Barnard, said this was worrying, considering 92 officers were killed on duty last year - 16 from KwaZulu-Natal.
“This is a national crisis. These policemen are coming up against heavily armed gangs and they do not have essential gear,” said Kohler Barnard.
“This is a ticking time bomb. With the rate of police killings, it is a matter of time before members refuse to go out and fight crime without the right protective gear.”
She accused police management of dodging the issue.
“I have policemen that come to me almost every other day complaining that they have not been issued with vests. Also, for years I have been asking police to invest in vests for female police officers. That too has fallen on deaf ears.”
The general secretary of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, Nkosinathi Theladi, also said they were aware that there were insufficient bulletproof vests for SAPS members countrywide.
Last week a concerned Durban policeman’s wife said she worried about the safety of her husband, who has been trying for four years to secure a new bulletproof vest.
In a letter to the Daily News, the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said her husband was a member of the police dog unit and had been issued a vest in 2002. It should have been replaced in 2008.
“The vests have a shelf life of five years, but once it is in use, it should be replaced after two years,” she said, adding that the outer cover of his vest had been replaced three times - at his own cost - because police would not pay for it.
KZN police spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane, denied the woman’s claims. He said bulletproof vests were not disposable.
A police audit last year showed that KZN had more than 22 000 operational officers, and more than 23 000 bulletproof vests.
In August last year, then police commissioner, Bheki Cele, issued an instruction that station commanders would be held responsible if any operational member went on duty without a bulletproof vest.
However, when asked if and how this regulation was being monitored in KZN, and if any commander had been held responsible, Zwane said: “This is monitored internally and we cannot give more information about this.”
In her letter, the woman claimed the entire dog unit had no vests, apart from those who had been fortunate enough to buy their own.
She said police officers worked under very dangerous conditions, which had been getting worse.
The killing last week of Detective Constable Ajith Krishanlal and the shooting of his partner, Constable Jerome Mngoma, had triggered her concern, she said.
Both policemen had not been wearing bulletproof vests.
“My husband and many other policemen put their lives on the line every day. To have basic equipment is a right. I think this is disgusting,” she wrote, describing the situation as desperate. “We have two children and I don’t want anything to happen to him. This is now a desperate situation from a desperate wife.”
A senior policeman said the issue of securing new bulletproof vests was a problem.
“We apply for new ones but, because of budget constraints, they do not get replaced.”
He said the vests were supposed to be replaced every five years.
Another source, a bulletproof vest expert, said every vest had a date of manufacture, from which the five-year expiry was calculated. He said the vests should be replaced every five years, for safety reasons.
“In the old dispensation the bulletproof vests were made with 10mm metal plates. Now, the plates are made of a different material. It’s not metal. For operational members, who wear the vests for four or five hours a day, the plates absorb their perspiration and it softens over a period of time.”
He said with wear and tear, it was imperative to replace the vests.
“Some members wear the vests for much longer hours. Their plates should be replaced after every two or three years.”
The source said vests were inspected annually, but this was not good enough. “The durability of the vest needs to be checked. For police officers this could be the difference between life and death.”
At the time Cele issued the instruction, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa also said it was essential for police to wear the vests and for them to receive more training to minimise deaths at the hands of armed criminals.
But policemen had complained the vest was too heavy and bulky to wear all the time.
In his speech to Parliament, Cele had said: “It has come to our attention that our members on the ground have developed a habit of putting their vests on for the mandatory parades that mark the start of their shifts, only to take these off thereafter.
National police commissioner Riah Phiyega’s office had not responded to queries by Sunday night. - Daily News