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Families of Cops are in the Firing Line

14 July 2007

By Tamar Kahn

An old pine chair saved Clara Meyer. It caught the bullet her constable son-in-law Carl Sharnick had intended for the back of her head, sending the bullet ricocheting into the checked linoleum kitchen floor just inches from where she lay wounded after his first attempt to kill her.

The rest of her family was not so lucky.

As Clara silently prayed, "Please Master, I'm not ready. I'm not going to die… ", her only daughter Mesadie was breathing her last. She lay crumpled on the floor of her mother's bedroom, felled by three shots from her husband Carl's service pistol, her baby daughter still warm and naked from her evening bath, crying on the blood-soaked carpet.

Clara couldn't see him but at that moment her husband Tom, severely wounded by Carl's first three shots as he stormed into the house, was crawling into the yard in search of help. Presuming Clara dead, the young policeman stepped past her body and took aim at his father-in-law once more. She heard five quick shots, a pause, and then another as Carl turned the gun on himself.

"Maybe it's a good thing. If he hadn't killed himself, the community would have," says Clara who, six months later, is still trying to make sense of what happened that evening at the end of January.

Carl's murder-suicide in the working-class suburb of Groenheuwel in Paarl was one of hundreds recorded in SA each year. The country has one of the highest rates of femicide-suicide in the world, with a disproportionate number occurring in police families, says the Medical Research Council. A recent study by the council found that in 1999 more than 260 males older than 14 killed their wife or girlfriend and then themselves, equivalent to a rate of 2,1 men in 100000. By contrast, homicide-suicide rates in the US are estimated at between 0,2 and 0,4 in 100000 people, 95% of them committed by men, according to a paper by the Centres for Disease Control published in the British Medical Journal last year.

In SA, almost 60% of femicide-suicides were committed by men working in the police force, security industry or armed forces, says the study's lead author, Shanaaz Mathews.
Women in relationships with men in these professions are at significantly increased risk of being murdered, compared with women involved with men in other jobs, her research has shown.

In the past 12 months, there have been at least half a dozen family murder- suicides involving policemen in Western Cape alone. At least a dozen others were reported in other provinces. In almost every case, the couple had relationship difficulties and in all but one incident the weapon of choice was a gun .

Police spokesman Selby Bokaba declined to provide official figures on the number of murder-suicides committed by officers, saying such information was for "internal consumption" only.

There is limited research on the phenomenon but experts suggest the high family murder-suicide rate among the South African police is caused by a complex interplay between personality, childhood experiences, exposure to trauma, stress and ready access to weapons.

Police officers are at the frontline of efforts to combat crime, a war that in many communities they seem to be losing. While the most recent official figures show many categories of crime have fallen in Paarl-East, the area patrolled by Carl and his colleagues, the numbers still paint a picture of a terribly violent society: 26 murders, 56 rapes and 40 indecent assaults, 367 residential burglaries, and 587 assaults in the year to March.

Experts suggest cops' frustration at the limited inroads they make against crime contributes to their sense of despair. "Family murders happen when a person has lost hope," says Dr Roland Graser, author of a book on South African family murders. Although few police officers get adequate psychological support to deal with the fear and violence they encounter on duty, this alone does not explain why so many family murders are committed by cops, he says.

The nature of police culture - with its "cowboys don't cry" mentality, rules of behaviour that conflict with those society considers acceptable (such as killing a suspect), and emphasis on physical toughness - means officers are unlikely to express their anger, fear and frustration at work, argues Graser. Instead, cops take their worries home and vent their aggression on those they say they love most - wives, girlfriends and children.

Ironically, these close relationships become a source of intense stress, setting up a vicious cycle in which work and home anxieties amplify each other. Often, when women try to end the relationship, the response is extreme. "Women are often not regarded by South African men as partners but as possessions. When women try to leave, the response is often, 'If I can't have you, no one else can,'" says Graser.

Relationship difficulties helped drive Carl to breaking point. Two weeks before the shooting, Mesadie confronted him about his all-night partying and frequent absences, her friends say. "Ek is toe gisteraand uitgesit (I was chucked out last night)," says an SMS she sent a close friend, who asked not to be named, the day after a blazing midnight row about the increasing distance between the high-school sweethearts. She took their three children - aged 10 , five and two - and returned to her childhood home.

Her parents had, for years, helped support the young couple, giving them a place to stay when they were newlyweds and later helping to clothe and feed the children, says the friend, suggesting this financial dependence was an increasing source of tension. Clara is a long- serving member of the Democratic Alliance and manages the Drakenstein municipality's housing portfolio.

Ten days after the fight, Carl turned up at the company where Mesadie worked, seeking reconciliation. Colleagues say she went outside to speak to him and returned crying, saying he had threatened to kill her parents if she did not return to their flat in Charlestonville Hills. According to Clara, she told her friends she would not go back, "dead or alive".

"I knew she must have had a hell of a life when I heard that," says Clara, shaking her head.

Carl was a reserved man, who revealed little of what was on his mind, she says. "He was a quiet man; he only talked when he had the drink in him."

Police stickers still mark the bullet holes in the bedroom ceiling in her modest home. She moved the front door to the side of the house after "the accident" and built a small wall on top of the kitchen counter so that when she sits at the kitchen table, she cannot see the spot where her husband was shot.

Carl's father Colin declined to be interviewed as he was deep in mourning for his wife, who recently died of natural causes, saying only that his son was a good man whose family meant everything to him.

The young constable joined the Paarl-East police station when he finished his basic training in 2002 and showed no signs of stress, says Western Cape police spokesman Billy Jones. No complaints were filed against him and no disciplinary measures instituted .

He never took extended sick leave and never requested or displayed a need for psychological counselling, says Jones. If Carl was struggling with work issues , he hid his problems from his superiors. Clara is unsure about whether the police can be blamed for Carl's actions.

"You see, my father was also a policeman, in the old apartheid days, and they had to work long shifts under very strained circumstances.… And you didn't hear about the policeman that was shooting his wife, or his father, or his mother-in-law.

"Why did he do what he have done? If he had only spoken to me. But he didn't …"

Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series on the police and mental health, supported by a fellowship from the US-based Carter Centre. If you have comments, or a story of your own to tell, contact the reporter at

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from Business Day.

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