Taking back the streets

2007-12-06 00:00

“WITH relatively simple tools, it’s within the grasp of ordinary people to address crime,” says Hilton Community Police Forum (HCPF) vice-chairman Mike Wheeler. “We know the recipe. And it works.”

To many South Africans wary of opening their morning newspapers for fear of being confronted with yet another ugly crime story, the confidence of these comments may seem hard to swallow.

But Wheeler and his team have the facts to back it up.

In the space of a year, the Hilton precinct has seen an overall drop of 38% in serious crime during the six-month period from April to September. Hilton station commissioner Captain Dean Jeary describes the drop as “substantial”. He says in certain areas within the precinct, the crime rate has fallen by as much as 70%. While attempted murder shows a 100% increase owing to an isolated incident, housebreaking, commonly regarded as a barometer of criminal activity in any area, is down by 47%. SAPS inspector Louise Lancaster says incidents of crime now rarely exceed 50 every month, whereas in the past they would frequently exceed 100.

It can be no coincidence that during the past year, the membership of the Hilton CPF has grown from roughly 300 to 1 000 family units.

Wheeler says he’s become aware of a palpable shift in the mood and outlook of Hilton residents as a result of the decline.

“Things are more relaxed,” he says. “Our community used to be made up of people who didn’t think there was a solution. Now, people are positive and are proud to be behind this initiative.”

So, what’s the secret ingredient?

Although the CPF has been active for a number of years, encouraging residents to form cells and stay in touch via two-way radios, the introduction about a year ago of a guard patrol system, commonly referred to as the “bobbies-on-the-beat” project, has had by far the greatest impact. The idea was borrowed from the Town Hill CPF and is based on the “simple philosophy” of visible policing. Wheeler says the effect of the patrols has been “astounding”.

The guards, who are employed by private security companies — Siyabonga and Red Alert — were first introduced in Winterskloof and quickly spread to other areas in Hilton. “People identified with it very quickly,” says Wheeler. He estimates that out of the roughly 2 000 families which live in the Hilton precinct, 1 000 of these families fall into one of six bobbies-on-the-beat projects, which are co-ordinated by a local area committee.

The committees have a fair degree of autonomy, prescribe and collect levies for the patrol service and have some decision-making capacity, although they are still answerable to the broader CPF.

“It’s a formal way of reaching the grassroots of a community,” says Wheeler.

While the cost of the bobbies project depends on the area, most participating members pay around R160 a month, although concessions have been made by committees for those who have genuine financial constraints. In some cases, where members are few, people are paying as much as R245.

The guards conduct their patrols on foot and bicycle and keep an eye out for any “suspicious activity”. Wheeler says the projects have become popular with domestic workers who also qualify as members of the CPF because they live or work in the area.

How the guards respond to an incident and who they call upon for backup depends on the nature of that activity.

“Either they handle the matter themselves or they contact either the SAPS or their own security company,” says Wheeler. Whatever happens, they enjoy substantial backup. “If necessary, they can summon their company’s armed response vehicle or the SAPS dog squad. As an individual, you could always do this — call in the cavalry – but then we never had 24-hour surveillance.

“That was the missing element,” says Wheeler.

Staying one step ahead of the criminals is critical. Wheeler says that the CPF members’ other strategies, such as radios and organised cells, only kicked in once an incident or intrusion was under way. “The bobbies take our strategy a step further by keeping the criminals off the street in the first place.”

Although large numbers are benefiting from the increased surveillance, not everyone is paying. Wheeler estimates that free riders make up about 45% of the areas under bobbies. Many people who are paying for private armed response services don’t see the need for bobbies. “But this is about securing public spaces and making our streets safe,” says Wheeler. “The benefit is to the whole community.”

Hilton SAPS Inspector Bradley Lancaster agrees. “A private armed response is reactive. It kicks in when all else has failed. The bobbies are proactive. People shouldn’t confuse these two concepts.”

And because people are naturally motivated by issues that affect them directly, those who generally stay in relatively low-crime areas within Hilton have also shown less enthusiasm about joining the bobbies projects. But the CPF is determined to get everyone on board. Wheeler says crime still happens because not every household has yet signed up.

In any event, says Lancaster, fighting crime is “an ongoing process”.

“Even if all residents join up, we have to start looking at what the criminals are doing to counter the presence of the bobbies. We need to look at staying ahead and improving our operations.”

Jeary says the bobbies on the beat projects are freeing police up in some cases to conduct more focused investigations. “To be effective, we need to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach. Fighting crime is not a one-man show. We can’t do it alone. We need everyone on board, including local government and other sectors of society.” For Jeary, the challenge is to maintain the impact of the CPF “for years to come”.

If the benefits continue to be clear-cut, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Says Wheeler: “It’s a positive picture and people feel it. It’s made a difference in their lives.”

The Hilton CPF’s crime-fighting recipe

1. Get to know the personnel at your local police station and use the national legislation to cement a formal relationship between the police and the community. The new Police Act makes provision for the establishment of CPFs and each police station is obliged by the act to facilitate their creation. “The CPF is not an informal neighbourhood initiative anymore. It’s a bona fide national crime prevention initiative,” says Wheeler. Formal monthly meetings are held between the CPF executive and the SAPS. A CPF member also attends a monthly SAPS management meeting. “We have an open day-to-day relationship between the community and the SAPS,” says Wheeler. “Our meetings have opened the eyes of residents to what the police actually do and how accountable they are to the national authorities. It’s encouraged mutual respect and helped to cement the partnership. I still hear people say that the government and police have failed us and we have to do it ourselves. This is not true. Any person in a precinct who wants to do something about crime is supported by the legislation, which allows communities to go as far as they want to, in conjunction with the police.”

2. Keep members of the CPF informed and empowered. In Hilton, a weekly crime report is produced by a CPF member and e-mailed to 1000 Hilton residents. The report is based on information received from the police and from community members. Two public meetings are held every year during which residents receive feedback and raise issues of concern.

3. Identify the nature of crime in your area. Only when you know what type of crime is prevalent can you think about strategies to address it, says Wheeler. “Our statistics keep us focused,” he says.

4. Formulate suitable strategies. Effective strategies used in the Hilton area have included the organisation of residents into street cells (get to know your neighbours), the use of two-way, hand-held radios (keep in touch with your neighbours) and, more recently, the bobbies-on-the-beat project.

• To contact the Hilton CPF, e-mail hiltoncpf@ushomi.co.za

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