Botho Molosankwe

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POLICE remain baffled about how two inmates allegedly killed a police officer before escaping from the police station two days ago.

The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) is conducting its own investigation into Warrant Officer Lennox Latha’s murder because it is dissatisfied with the answers the SAPS provided.

And the SA Police Union (Sapu) is concerned about what it views as an upsurge in attacks on officers at police stations.

Solly Bulala, Sapu spokesman, said union members had complained about security at police stations on numerous occasions.

Bulala said a shortage of manpower at police stations was a contributing factor. Officers were left taking risky decisions that might end up costing them their lives.

He said that was compounded by the fact that the services of a private security company – contracted to protect police stations – was discontinued throughout the country.

Latha’s body was found in a toilet after he was allegedly attacked by two inmates on Sunday evening at Katlehong police station in Ekurhuleni. He had been strangled by pieces of a blanket when he went to investigate someone calling from the cells.

Bulala said although procedure dictated that two or more officers check on prisoners in holding cells every hour, a policeman sometimes had to go alone if there was not enough manpower.

“Many officers we have spoken to say they are under tremendous pressure due to a shortage of staff, hence they go alone in some instances. They compromise their security and bypass procedure in the name of doing their jobs.

“This is a concern to us as a union and we try to talk to our members that they should be extra careful. Some of the weapons that are found when the cells are searched … it’s scary,” said Bulala.

In another incident last year, Bulala said, a prisoner bit off the finger of a police officer in the holding cells at a police station in Tzaneen, Limpopo.

“He held on to the finger and bit it until it fell off. Police tried to get him off but they could not and neither could they shoot him because had they done so, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate would have been on their case,” Bulala said.

Questions are being asked about what really happened the day Latha died. Provincial police spokeswoman Colonel Noxolo Kweza said it was not clear how he was killed because while Latha was with a colleague, he went alone to investigate the call from the cells.

She could not say whether Latha opened the cells when he got there.

“We are not sure what happened. All we know is that prisoners escaped and we have to know how they opened the door because they don’t have keys. The keys are with us,” she said.

Popcru spokeswoman Theto Mahlakoana said the recorded sequence of events leave many questions unanswered.

The union wants to know how “the evil plans of the inmates succeeded while other officers were present in the station”.

“We, therefore, hope whatever findings we’ll come across will inform our submission to the South African Police Service on ways to ensure that the safety of officers deployed isn’t compromised.”

All the police were willing to say was that Latha had worked as a police officer for the past 26 years and was married with two children.

The government spent R161 million in the 2009/10 financial year on 48 security companies to police stations across the country.

This was after it was found that the security at police stations was too lax and it was better for police officers to focus on fighting crime and their other police duties.

The contract was terminated early this year.

Popcru said policemen were now deployed to protect stations.

At the time, police officers said they did not know what led to the termination of the security company’s contract.

They had stated, however, that they felt safer with their colleagues manning the entrance to the police station. “Those guys (security guards) were going on as if they were not being paid,” said an officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.