Paying for safety - does it actually work?

2008-02-23 00:00

More and more people are paying for private security, but house and business robberies continue to rise.

The conclusion drawn by South African crime prevention expert Barbara Holtmann is that “the money being spent on private security in Sandton, for example, is not keeping Sandton safe”.

She says that the current approach that focuses particularly on private security-related solutions to crime results in either the kind of crime or where it happens being displaced.

Holtmann, who was recently elected as the vice president of the International Centre for Prevention of Crime, says that there is a lack of innovative thinking by communities with regard to crime prevention.

Criminals, in the meantime, continuously find different ways to get what they want by changing their modus operandi or committing crime elsewhere. Bank robberies, for example, were a significant problem several years ago until security measures in banks were increased. Then South Africa experienced a spate of cash-in-transit heists. After improving security related to the transporting of cash, robbers have begun to attack guards while walking between their vehicle and the shop or bank from which they are collecting, or taking, the cash.

Acknowledging that there is no easy solution to the complex problem of crime, Holtmann warns that South Africa is getting it desperately wrong by continuing to do more of the same. “Instead of acknowledging that what we’re doing isn’t working and making different choices, we are doing more and more of the same. There is no attempt to ask how we can break out of this cycle.”

Holtmann highlights the need for alternatives, including various kinds of technology, to address crime. “What about looking at creating better leisure spaces, ways to keep youth busy and walking lift clubs for children going to and from schools?”

She suggests that people look at how to network better with their neighbours, find ways to improve usage of streets and to create greater visibility, enabling people to see into their neighbour’s property and improve street lighting, as a few examples. “Instead of building a fortress, we can look at clever technology. For example, you can put a single beam across an access point that operates as an early warning system and results in many criminals being less likely to pursue coming into your property.”

Managing director of Blue Security Frans Davidtz says that the fact that crime is increasing, despite the investment in private security, serves to highlight how significant the problem really is. There are roles performed by private security that are not performed by other law enforcement agencies. These include escorting valuables and providing access control at office buildings.

In Dawncliffe in Westville, home owners have been asked to contribute to guards stationed 24 hours a day on seven roads that give access to the area. One resident attributes the presence of the guards to her feeling safe. So much so that she does not have an alarm at her house. “It’s worth every cent. They [the guards] know who drives what car.”

Security companies are adamant that such initiatives are successful, particularly because they increase visibility and are able to act as “eyes and ears” and call for a response if necessary. Julie Scheepers, the project co-ordinator for Coin Security, which runs 15 such projects around Durban, said the initiatives are very effective in reducing crime.

Similarly, group managing director of Chubb Security Southern Africa, Stephen Mundy, says the presence of armed response organisations has deterred would-be criminals who would rather target a home that is not protected by a security organisation. In addition, he says the police generally apprehend criminals after they have committed a crime, while the private security industry seeks to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. “In view of this, we believe people will continue to employ security organisations to protect their families and their homes.”

But a number of concerns relating to guards have been raised. Many guards are not highly trained (the lowest level of security guard is required to attend a one-week training course), earn relatively low salaries and are unarmed. They are extremely vulnerable if confronted by criminals who are armed or offer cash in return for “looking the other way”.

Last Sunday, Carte Blanche aired an interview with the Paterson family, who were held up in their Johannesburg home last year. During the attack, 17-year-old Jamie Paterson was raped. Her mother, Bronwyn, said that she held their security company culpable because the robbers entered the house and loaded their cars in the driveway in full view of the street. “They drove straight out through the booms with all our belongings,” she said.

Emphasising that she does not want to come across as being critical of people not finding creative solutions to crime, Holtmann said it is simply because South Africans are suffering the impact of crime and violence.

“If you look at the last 10 years, we’ve had about two million serious crimes every year. Some years it’s been a bit more, some a bit less, but it averages out at two million. That results in a huge number of people who are suffering from post traumatic stress and many with post traumatic stress disorder.”

Holtmann says that solutions to the crime problem should not only come from the private security industry. “If we’re going to spend upwards of R46 billion this year, surely at least some of it should be on alternative strategies? We need to ask what will work best, not what the private security companies can offer. We need to think and work creatively and collectively to find a completely different approach.”

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