Police suicides ‘an emotional issue’
Johannesburg - From January to September this year, 45 members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) were murdered – some fighting criminals, some kidnapped from their homes, some just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Over those same nine months, another 45 officers fell victim to themselves.
No longer able to cope, many turned their guns on themselves and sometimes took their families with them.
Although the number of police suicides has dropped over the past financial year, they remain an enormous and emotional issue at the national police headquarters.
National police spokesman Lieutenant-General Solomon Makgale explained that police officers dealing with deep emotional trauma or suicidal feelings have numerous options available to them.
SAPS has an employee health and wellness (EHW) service, staffed by psychologists and social workers, to help support police officers and their families at no cost.
A commander may also refer an employee for counselling, and some units and divisions “whose operations continuously expose them to traumatic events” have mandatory sessions.
Even friends, family and other colleagues can recommend counselling for an individual if they feel the officer’s behaviour is inappropriate.
Some officers may be too proud or wary of psychotherapy to use the systems, but Makgale said the number of officers choosing to seek help was improving.
Professionals were on hand to help “sensitise members on the importance of taking care of the mental, physiological, spiritual and social aspects of their lives”, he said.
Makgale said that according to SAPS regulations, although debriefing was not compulsory, the officer concerned had to report a traumatic incident to the debriefer on standby and a consultation had to take place so the employee could make an informed decision.
When asked if there was a stigma around receiving counselling and whether such sessions were recorded on an officer’s personal record, Makgale said the information was treated confidentially and did not form part of the employee’s personal work file.
“The general perception that ‘cowboys don’t cry’ is also rife within SAPS, so seeking help and support is not always easy for such environments. EHW is not aware of cases or evidence proving the perceptions to be true wherein support and counselling information was used to jeopardise placement and promotion of members within the organisation,” said Makgale.
But there may be financial reasons why some suicidal officers murder their families.
The SAPS’s funds for widows and orphans support the families of officers killed in the line of duty but do not apply when officers kill themselves.
However, Makgale said the families of police suicide victims still have access to the EHW services.
The number of police suicides has surpassed the number of officers murdered year on year since 2010, but it’s still unclear how the SAPS plans on ensuring the numbers start to decline.
“Although one suicide is one too many, a comparative analysis indicates that our suicide numbers up to the last quarter of this financial year are lower than those of the 2010/11 and 2011/12 financial years,” said Makgale.
With 155 000 active police officers on the force, the question is, are the interventions in place sufficient?
10 August 2013: Constable Mzwandile Bolotina murdered his wife and then turned the gun on himself. Police received a complaint about the noise at the home in the mid-afternoon, after neighbours went to investigate and found Bolotina and his wife dead from gunshot wounds in their bedroom. Bolotina was part of the Krugersdorp police station’s detective unit, but stayed in Kagiso on the West Rand.
August 2013: A Kuils River police constable shot and killed his 40-year-old wife at their home in Kleinvlei, Western Cape. He then fled to Delft and was arrested shortly after.
February 2013: In North West, a police officer shot and wounded his wife before killing himself. The 34-year-old sergeant’s wife was en route to Koster police station to lay a charge of domestic abuse when he fired seven bullets at her car. He then turned the gun on himself.
December 2012: A police constable attempted to kill his 21-year-old girlfriend after an argument at a tavern in Modimong Village, near Taung in North West. He drove with her into a bushy area, where he handcuffed her to a tree and shot her in the hip. He then shot himself just metres away.
November 2012: A Cape Town policeman, Sergeant Max Gwanya, killed his family before shooting himself in the head, after an argument with his wife, Nosivuyise. He also shot dead his sister-in-law, wife and four-year-old-son.
April 2012: An enraged policeman at Moot police station in Pretoria shot his girlfriend five times in front of his colleagues before deciding to end his own life. Constable Vutivi Mabunda shot the 23-year-old woman after she had asked for help at the police station in getting her clothes from Mabunda’s flat.
October 2012: An award-winning police officer, Sergeant Annesh Bootram, shot his ex-girlfriend, her mother and the couple’s six-year-old daughter and a family friend at a Mossel Bay flat in the Western Cape.