Cleaning up grime to tackle criminals

2014-01-16 00:00

RIDING dirt bikes, bicycles and even horses — and armed with garbage bags and spray cans — an upper Highway community has literally cleaned up its “crime super highway” to reduce certain crimes “virtually to zero”.

After a controversial decision to pilot the same “broken windows” crime fighting strategy that has transformed New York City, the Hillcrest Park Neighbourhood Watch (HPNW) claims that — while organised robbers still stalk the area — its assault on litter, loitering, graffiti and other petty crimes has directly reduced serious “opportunistic crimes” by around 80%.

They say they have assisted the police with 17 arrests.

Hillcrest police station commander Colonel Thandeka Mbele told The Witness that the disused Transnet railway reserve running through the area had been used both as a launchpad and escape route for crime — and that HPNW’s daily clean-up patrols over the last year had made “a real difference”.

While traditional vehicle patrols are held nightly on the roads, Shaun Lyle, chairperson of HPNW, said half a dozen residents used their own off-road motorcycles and — from this month — BMX bicycles to patrol hard-to-access routes “actually used by criminals”, including the railway line.

A small group of mostly female residents in the hyper-affluent suburb of Everton next door patrol on horseback, and will soon sport uniforms stating “Ranger”.

A cess pool of garbage, graffiti and “warehousing” for stolen goods just a year ago — and providing a unique escape route that crosses no roads — the four-kilometre stretch of the old main line is now used by joggers, botanists and guided walking groups.

Lyle said both the dirt bike patrols and the broken windows approach were rolled out in earnest after a string of brutal crimes in the upper Highway area last autumn — including the murder of Rodney Bradley in Kloof, and a panga attack on Ryan Sutherland in Hillcrest Park.

He said, “Initially, some residents told us, ‘Why are you wasting your time with litter and graffiti — we have a crisis of violent crime here; surely we should take them on direct?’

“But, like New York, we believe evidence of crime and grime not only tells criminals that the area is not being watched, but that it also generates crime; much of which can quickly turn violent. Except for a spike in the last few weeks, which is worrying, opportunistic crime — including burglaries and thefts — came down virtually to zero for six months. We are proof that the broken windows theory works.”

The theory — which claims that visible evidence of “disorder” triggers ever-higher levels of crime — is disputed by some criminologists and law enforcement leaders around the world. However, Cape Town’s CBD has seen a dramatic reduction in serious crimes following a campaign against grime.

Lyle said Transnet allowed their “trail rangers” to patrol the reserve daily “within strict protocols”.

The riders and other volunteers have packed 1 000 black bags with litter in the past year, while a major illegal dumping site at an Eskom substation adjacent to the line was cleared with a hired truck last week. The line is only used once per week for heritage train journeys to Inchanga.

Bruce Bennett, manager of the Umgeni Steam Railway, said he had been “amazed” by the transformation of the route through Hillcrest.

Business owner Ken Chiocchetti (55) and his four teenage sons, who are now in charge of the group’s war on graffiti, said, “A lot of it is gang-related; it literally invites other criminals into the area.”

Chioccetti said he had been “sold” on the “broken windows” approach. “Everyone knows that if you leave all kinds of rubbish lying around, you’ll get rats — it’s the same with criminals.”

However, Lyle admitted that a “dramatic spike” in crime in the past three weeks — including six burglaries and one violent armed robbery — showed broken windows was only effective against opportunistic crime.

Mbele said professional robbers driving upmarket vehicles were the new threat, “The robbers are dressing up very smart to fit in — we arrested one guy in [an Audi] Q7.”

Following a partnership with a private security company, Hillcrest Park now has 11 tall, bright-orange “lollipop” security cameras at key intersections, and on the railway reserve. However — just as New York “relocated” its prostitutes and “squeegee men” in the 1990s — the HPNW has also adopted the more controversial method of encouraging suspected reconnaissance thieves, vagrants, beggars and rubbish “pickers” to move out of the area.

Lyle said that when a “suspicious individual” gave an inadequate answer when “challenged”, a series of patrollers would “politely” confront them with the same verbal challenge until the person moved on.

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