B's Bonnet: Surely the first rule of any police training is that the suspect is never in control?
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By Bongani Bingwa
Johannesburg - Robert De Niro won his second Oscar for best actor for the 1980 Martin Scorsese film, Raging Bull. It is regarded as one of the best movies ever made and the magnum opus of the acclaimed director’s career. And he almost did not make it. He famously rejected the project initially because he could not relate to the principal character – a middleweight boxer “whose self-destructive and obsessive rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite destroyed his relationship with his wife and family”.
De Niro was the difference. He embodied the role and even gained 27kg to play the character.
“Raging Bull” could certainly be used to describe the man who had the nation’s tongues wagging this week after a video in which he is seen naked and in an altercation with police officers, went viral. His name is Len Cloete, a lanky body builder and owner of a private gym in Pretoria. He remains in a coma after being shot in the head by a cop last weekend.
At the time of writing he was fighting for his life but police have nonetheless opened a case of armed robbery, assault on an officer and malicious damage to property.
What happened is simple yet complicated. The video that shows the scuffle is clear enough – Cloete repeatedly cursed the cops, brandished a weapon against them, disarmed and assaulted one of them before the shot that hit him in the head was fired.
What is less clear is what led to the altercation. The police say they were called after Cloete and his wife and another couple refused to leave the Misty Hills Lodge in Muldersdrift when staff tried to eject them for unruly behaviour, including bringing a firearm on the premises. His wife has hired ace detective Mike Bolhuis to explain events she was a direct witness to.
He says the officers were wrong to shoot her husband. They did not follow protocol. “One, stern warnings are issued; two, the weapon is taken out; three, the weapon is pointed at the suspect; four, a warning shot is fired into the ground; five, a shot in the leg.” Others disagree. It should never have gotten that far. “There is no requirement for a warning shot. No requirement to shoot in leg first to injure a suspect. The moment you believe your life is in imminent danger you may use deadly force – and in my mind that scenario existed the moment he picked up his own firearm,” an expert told me this week.
The imminence was clear from the moment he cocked his own weapon and brandished it at the officers. The assault on the female officer sealed his fate especially when he disarmed her. The officer who shot him was visibly panicked even as he clumsily fired his gun at Cloete.
Our police force is not known for its restraint in general – think Andries Tatane, think Marikana. So why did several officers seem so intimidated by a man who first confronted them buck-naked? Would they have stood by and let any other suspect go and fetch his firearm, cock it and point it towards them and do nothing? Surely the first rule of any training is that the suspect is never in control? Why did they not take immediate steps to immobilise him?
The truth is simply that Cloete was treated with kid gloves because he is white. Our police routinely assault black bodies for the most trivial offences with unseemly brutality and force. Here they faltered and gave the suspect unbelievable leeway – they were scared, unsure of themselves and because of prevailing attitudes towards white males, they were unable to take charge.
There is little doubt in my mind – if this guy had been black they would, as they often do, have erred on the opposite side. They were unduly deferential to this raging bully, because he was the baas and acted like it. He occupied that role as if born to it and they fell in line. Even the officer who shot him was afraid – he was fumbling and shaking even as he aimed for the head
So how do you train cadets for this type of situation? It may not matter much to the courts. They will apply the test of a reasonable man. It is a standard that must apply to "flesh and blood" situations – were the defensive steps taken in the situation reasonable and what might an ordinary person have done? Once the officers were under attack by an armed man, the only option to subdue him was the use of deadly force. No court will find that confusing.
There are those who think the cops were harsh for shooting a man in the head. Others have judged their hesitance – six trained and armed law enforcers against one naked man. His wife continues to receive messages of support on social media, from black people and white people.
That tells you the officers are like many of us – conditioned to instinctively humanise this raging bull.