Durban - Despite recent incidents of police being shot dead, some officers are putting their lives on the line daily by refusing to wear bulletproof vests.
It is not clear whether any of the five officers killed in recent attacks in KwaZulu-Natal, including Durban Constable Zethu Cele, who was shot in the chest while responding to a robbery on August 16, had been wearing bulletproof vests.
Police are quiet on the Cele murder, with spokesman Captain Thulani Zwane saying only that the case was at a sensitive stage.
In the past three years, 146 police officers have been shot dead in the line of duty nationwide.
Police management in KZN said on Sunday it was aware of the problem, and warned officers they could be punished for not wearing their vests.
A police union warned that families could lose a R200 000 payout if an officer is not wearing a bulletproof vest when shot dead.
Officers who spoke to the Daily News on condition of anonymity complained the bulletproof vests:
* were heavy and limited their movement;
* caused them to sweat profusely;
* prevented them from drawing their firearm from a side holster;
* did not take into account individual physiques as they were either too big or too small;
* caused women pain and bruises; and
* put pressure on their kidneys.
Some officers claimed their vests were long due for renewal, as they had had them for more than 10 years. One of them showed the Daily News a tag, which showed that his bulletproof vest should have been renewed in 2006.
Failure to wear the vests was a disciplinary offence, warned provincial police spokesman, Colonel Jay Naicker.
“A concerted effort is being undertaken within SAPS to encourage police members to wear their bulletproof vests at all times and to further treat each complaint as serious,” Naicker told the Daily News.
“Although people have personal preferences in terms of equipment use and may find this piece of equipment cumbersome, it can indeed save lives.”
Naicker said: “If you are carrying a gun you must wear one.”
However, officers said that some of the vests were torn and doubted whether they would stop a 9mm round.
The vests are supposed to withstand 9mm and .357 magnum rounds and when equipped with ceramic plates, could withstand assault rifle fire.
Some officers claimed that when they approached management at stations they were told there were no new vests available and that orders were pending.
A few said they even bought their own vests, similar to the ones issued to private security officers. But, because they were not state approved, they were given verbal warnings, they claimed.
However, a Durban police commander said management could not always be blamed, because some officers were just not bothered about wearing them when they were available. He said that some stations lacked management skills or poor leadership and did not inspect the officers properly every day to make sure they had the right equipment.
The DA’s spokeswoman on policing matters, MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, said that despite claims by SAPS management during parliamentary police portfolio committee meetings, the issue of bulletproof vests - both the shortages and the failure to wear them when available - remained a problem.
“It is obvious that both supply chain management and police discipline are an utter failure. How else could one explain, for example, that members of many units, such as the Dog Unit in Durban, have vests 11 years or older? The shelf life is five years but a vest should actually be replaced after two years,” she said.
Kohler Barnard said she had received complaints from SAPS as well as metro police officers about there being no bulletproof vests available.
“For years the SAPS management has told us in Parliament that every police officer has a bulletproof vest, yet during our visits to stations all over the country members come to me appealing for help in obtaining one,” she said.
Kohler Barnard said Parliament had passed a R73 billion budget, so police should have the basic tools of the trade: a bulletproof vest, a firearm, a vehicle, computer, cellphone, toilets, electricity and running water.
“The truth is that in far too many stations they just don’t.”
“The SAPS has bulletproof vests designed for men and women,” Naicker said. He said by their very nature the vests would be heavy, but that their usefulness outweighed any discomfort from wearing them.
While echoing this sentiment, the Institute for Security Studies’ Johan Burger acknowledged some of the officers’ complaints about the gear.
“It’s very heavy, especially for female officers, and these are made for men and not easy for women to wear,” he said.
“Police (management) should look into this and if there are concerns and see what can be done to get a new model that would suit their members.”
General secretary of SA Police Union Oscar Skommere, said on Monday morning the issue had been raised with the SAPS for as far back as five years ago.
“We’ve made the department (SAPS) aware, but haven’t had any joy as these matters haven’t been addressed.
“It’s a really old issue,” he said.
“We also raised the issue of female bulletproof vests which are not suitable for women’s bodies.
“And there is also an issue of a shortage of the vests and members having to share vests which in terms of occupational health and safety is not right.”
However, he said the union did not advocate for members not to wear the vests in protest.
“We will always encourage them to put on the vests while we still fight to get them better vests.
“Because once a member is shot and is found to have not worn a vest, it’s another issue and they forfeit the R200 000 that would have gone towards supporting their family.”
Albert van Asperen, manager at Randburg Firearms, agreed this morning that the vests were uncomfortable, but said there was nothing anyone could do about that.
“Yes, they also make it difficult to draw your firearm quickly and there are some special holsters that one can get. But they are horrible, they stand too far from the body…
“(It) is a trade off. Either you wear a bulletproof and feel uncomfortable, or you don’t wear it and take a chance,” he said.