High fences help serious criminals, experts warn

Natural surveillance and neighbourliness are compromised by walls. (Graphics24)
Natural surveillance and neighbourliness are compromised by walls. (Graphics24)

Durban - With soaring crime rates pushing homeowners to fortify their properties, high walls meant to keep criminals out have become the residents’ biggest threat, experts warn.

Even with fortressed spaces dominating the landscape in premier suburbs across the city, brazen home invasions continue unabated.

With a sharp increase in aggravated robbery and the rise of the professional bandit as a counterpunch to increased security, a study has revealed that bringing down the walls may be the smartest move.

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Professor Monique Marks, a specialist in policing and social order, found that the everyday homeowner walling themselves within their own private Bastille was not a workable solution to a rampant crime problem.

Her report was the culmination of a consultative process between police and security bodies, and an analysis of crime trends to disassemble the “architecture of fear”.

Marks’s work identified security features of the ideal home without walls in a changing climate of safety and security.

The study compared Westville and Umbilo outside Durban, contrasting the high crime rate in the fortified affluent former compared to a low rate in the latter.

“In most of today’s South African suburbs, high walls and other hard-targeting crime prevention devices are viewed as non-negotiable in creating a sense of safety in a country that many view as plagued by crime,” she wrote.

“As formal apartheid broke down, walls went up — real walls that physically separated people from one another and figurative walls that displaced the stranger. Houses without walls are now viewed as vulnerable to crime and intrusion, although evidence and direct experience may indicate the contrary.

“South African suburb dwellers are hardwired into the habit of building walls, and there appears to be little space to deliberate the possibility of breaking down walls,” Professor Marks added.

She said that architecture of fear had inculcated perceptions.

“Surveys indicate that despite excessive fortification, particularly amongst the more affluent, fear of crime has increased.”

Marks said that during the course of her study, most experts agreed that high walls were counter-productive.

“Almost all the policing actors spoke of the myth of securitisation created by high walls, usually combined with high technology devices for deterring and detecting outsiders.”

“High walls provide a space for criminals to act unseen and my sense is that it is behind high walls that more serious crimes take place,” she added.

She said the solution lay with increasing visibility, with palisade fencing the perfect alternative for solid barriers.

“While private security representatives spoke about the importance of security technology such as beams, passives and even CCTV in optimising home security, they also placed considerable emphasis on natural surveillance and neighbourliness, both of which are compromised by walls.”

Case study

In September, two Westville properties were hit by a gang of well-armed robbers who stormed through security gates. In one instance, they held a family captive for over an hour, and threatened to rape the homeowner’s wife if they didn’t relinquish foreign currency.

The houses, less than a kilometre apart, were hit within three days of one another, pointing to the presence of a highly organised criminal gang, which had targeted the affluent suburb.

They were undeterred by high walls that surrounded the homes, and robbed the houses despite the presence of security guards, electric fences, heavy duty gates, burglar bars and security fencing, as well as alarm systems.

Blue security

Blue Security operations manager Brian Jackson, one of the expert advisers to the City Without Walls campaign, said that solid walls provided refuge for criminals.

“High walls may act as a deterrent to some petty, opportunistic criminals, but we have seen incidents where serious criminals simply use ladders to scale walls and in some cases they have also burrowed below high walls and fences to gain access onto a property.

“Gate-crashing has also become a regular phenomenon in housebreakings and armed robberies in Durban, which shows that no matter how secure a property may seem, surrounded by high walls, one’s security is only as strong as the weakest link.”

Jones said that wall height should not exceed six feet or 1.8 metres. “It is safer to opt for a steel palisade fence or an electric fence so that the property remains relatively visible from the road.

“Homes with high walls are difficult to monitor because once a criminal has found his way on to a property he can operate under the cover of the high walls out of sight of neighbours and patrolling armed reaction officers. Some security companies will not allow their officers to jump over walls to enter a property if there is suspected suspicious behaviour, which can also be a problem.

“Our reaction officers have permission from clients to enter their properties and we will jump over walls to respond to a crime scene and chase down suspects, but these excessively high walls are a hindrance to our work as our officers could also injure themselves jumping over walls to assist residents,” he said.

Enforce security

Enforce managing director Anthony Feuilherade said that high walls made gardens a haven for crooks.

“What our experience has seen in the past is that solid walls provide valuable cover for criminals and once they are in they can move around as they please. Visibility is a key factor when securing a home and there should be a clear line of sight both into the property and onto the street,” he said.

He echoed the need for adequate perimeter lighting.

“The home owner should make sure that their perimeter fence is well lit because criminals use the darkness as an ally, and it only helps them when they force their way in if they can do it in a dark spot,” he added.

Feuilherade said that layered security was imperative.

“We have fitted sensors to gates because of the increasing number of robberies in which home-invaders have derailed the gates. Any sort of early warning system is valuable,” he said.

- The Witness.

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