Cape authorities mull cellphone jamming in prisons to curb gang violence

Safety and Security MEC Albert Fritz. (Peter Abrahams, SON)
Safety and Security MEC Albert Fritz. (Peter Abrahams, SON)

The Western Cape government is considering steps as drastic as blocking cellphone reception in prisons to curb gang violence - which accounts for a large percentage of the 1 600 murders committed from January to June this year.

Safety and Security MEC Albert Fritz said he and his City of Cape Town counterpart JP Smith, held a "robust" crisis meeting with police officials on Thursday. 

The head of the recently formed Anti-Gang Unit (AGU), General Andre Lincoln, could not attend but Western Cape detectives head Jeremy Vearey was present, as well as visible policing representatives.

The AGU was launched last year after heightened concern over gang-related murders in the province and the unit has made headway. However, six officers came under fire earlier in June during an arrest operation in Samora Machel. There have also been complaints that the unit doesn't have a proper budget.

READ: Civil activist claims SAPS Anti-Gang Unit doesn't have a proper budget

In a letter, Lincoln recently requested the removal of a brigadier and two colonels from his unit after he was not informed about the botched Samora Machel operation.

Fritz said he was astounded that the AGU was "having a fight" with the provincial commissioner, "while people are dying outside".

"I hope they get their ducks in a row and sort that out."

Some of the proposals Smith and Fritz made include that the police be incentivised for illegal firearms they recover; that gun shops keep electronic registers of ammunition sold "because books go missing", and that cellphone reception in prisons be blocked.

'Sophisticated crimes'

Western Cape prisons are known for their "numbers gang" activities and it is feared that members of gangs known as the 26s, 27s and 28s were behind many gang disputes.

"Most sophisticated gang-related crimes are planned in prisons," Fritz said, motivating the cellphone blocking suggestion.

The meeting follows the Western Cape government's stand-off with national police for thousands more police officers to be deployed on the grounds and that the province's ratio of police to population is less than any other province. 

Smith claimed that the politicking around policing has led to a "total collapse" in vital intelligence gathering to prevent crime and gang activity. 

He said gang violence was often over a "small" issue, such as a dispute over a romantic relationship or somebody trying to get back into a gang, but that the consequences were felt deeply in the suburbs the shootings are occurred.

In the meantime, police are caught up in "politicking". 

"It is disgraceful," said Smith. "There is a level of open career assassination in SAPS (the SA Police Service) which I have never seen before."

He said people were spying on each other and causing "budget starvation and 'sabotage of command structures.'"

"Perhaps the time for a commission of inquiry is right."

Among the proposals made at the meeting was that the Metro Police and the SAPs merge their information centres and work together at one command centre.

This way the police can immediately have access to the City's CCTV network to track criminals. 

Threat of shutdown by communities

Smith also said he understood Community Police Forums' (CPF) threats to hold a total shutdown in some areas of Cape Town if gang violence and crime is not eradicated.

"I personally don't have a problem with a shutdown," said Smith. "When forensic pathology says they have 71 bodies in three days, it is a crisis. 

"All we ask is that there not be damage to municipal infrastructure. So by all means, protest. But don't let there be damage around it."

He encouraged the CPFs to speak up when they see poor accountability. 

They also commended about 50 000 neighbourhood watch members working in the city - more than half of whom have been accredited. 

Fritz added that at a forthcoming bosberaad of all the departments in the Western Cape government, he would ask each department to explain specifically what they are doing to contribute to reducing crime. 

"Crime starts with that packet of chips you throw on the floor," he said, explaining that an action like that indicates a low understanding of the law and leads to bigger transgressions.

Asking the army for assistance in terms of closing off suburbs would be a last resort, once all other options have been exhausted.

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