10 June 2015
In a feature titled The Counted, The Guardian is keeping track of the number of people killed by police action in the United States. “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years,” says The Guardian. We wondered how the police in South Africa compare.
The Guardian report contains alarming statistics, for example:
The article leaves readers in no doubt about the deadliness of the US police force. How does South Africa compare? Our police force is more lethal by far.
The Guardian states, “It’s rather difficult to compare data from different time periods, according to different methodologies, across different parts of the world, and still come to definitive conclusions.” It also says, “at least there is some accountability in America — even if data from the rest of the world is still catching up.”
In fact, it isn’t easy to get accurate year-by-year data on people killed by police action in the United States as Carl Bialik explains on FiveThirtyEight. The official count is about 930 people per year, but Bialik explains that this excludes people killed by local law enforcement agencies and that the actual number is in the region of 1,240.
The number of people killed by the South African Police Service (SAPS) is recorded in the annual report by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID). As with the American data, there are questions about accuracy. It’s not clear if this includes lethal force used by Metro cops. Also, the killings are divided between deaths in police custody and deaths as a result of police action.
To compare US and South African police lethality, we’ve used data from 2013 (or, to be precise, the 2013/14 South African financial year) and, where data is unclear, we have made assumptions that err in favour of understating the lethality of SAPS.
According to IPID, the number of people killed by police action in South Africa in 2013 was 409. This was down from 485 in 2012, the year the Marikana massacre took place. It also excludes deaths of people in police custody.
Assuming the figure cited by Carl Bialik of 1,242 police fatalities a year in the US, then taking into account that the US population is six times greater than South Africa’s, SAPS are twice as lethal as their US counterparts.
South Africa is much more violent than the United States. In 2013, 17,068 homicides were recorded in South Africa, compared to 16,121 in the United States. You’re about six times more likely to be murdered in South Africa.
South Africa is also a more dangerous place to be a cop, with 77 officers killed in the line of duty in 2013, compared to 107 in the US. Corrected for population, South African cops are six times more likely to die while doing their work.
Interestingly in 2013 there were a lot fewer officer deaths in the US in 2012 or 2014, but this doesn’t materially change things: being a cop in the US is substantially safer than being one in South Africa.