Residents take action against crime

Rob Amato describes how residents of a Cape Town suburb that had no police station set about reducing crime in their area.
Observatory, is an attractive, leafy suburb under Devil’s Peak, favoured by artists, yuppies and the retired. Built mainly in the 1900s Cape Town’s answer to Greenwich Village, as it is sometimes called, is enjoying a property and restaurant boom. Less happily, it has also experienced a boom in crime.

The suburb has never had a police station. The nearest large station is in Mowbray. However Observatory’s policing is not based there but, inexplicably, at Woodstock, three kilometres away. But, Woodstock Police Station is responsible for one of the largest precincts in Cape Town (Salt River, University Estates, Woodstock and Observatory) and is so understaffed that often only one police van is in operation to service 150 000 people. As a result Observatory’s reputation as an easy target spread quickly among thieves and robbers. In February 1997 alone reported crime included 30 residential burglaries, 12 business burglaries, eight street robberies, 54 thefts from vehicles, nine cars stolen, nine assaults and one rape.

Last year a group of residents responded to the deteriorating situation by setting up Obswatch, a community-policing organisation that employs South African Police Service (SAPS) reservists to patrol the suburbs’ streets and lanes. Following the establishing meeting on June 24, there were six well-attended public meetings. Obswatch was registered as a company, a board of directors elected and I was appointed as chief executive officer. With initial donations of just under R25 000 from the community and an unsecured bank loan, we bought furniture, uniforms and bicycles. Norwich Holdings gave us a computer, a local printer produces our newsletter free and another local firm has covered our photocopying costs — several thousand sheets a month.

But most of Obswatch’s funds are raised by subscriptions from residents. The organisation acquired its membership through the door-to-door efforts of the volunteer subscriptions director and some 20 “street harvesters”. We call subscriptions “social money” and do not ask for the family jewels. We charge R50 per month per household and between R100 and R250 per month per business for the service provided, though our officers respond to crime whether the victim is a subscriber or not. The only state assistance so far has been from the Provincial Secretariat for Safety and Security — R16 000 for eight two-way radios, that are, quite simply, essential. With these funds and equipment, Obswatch employs 17 officers working four shifts, 24 hours a day every day, so that there are always three or four officers are on duty.

Since officers began work on September 1 there has been a substantial reduction in crime. In February this year, there were four reported house break-ins, five business burglaries, two street robberies, and no assaults or rapes. These figures have been broadly echoed in other months (see table below). However, there were still 32 thefts out of cars and eight vehicles stolen. Observatory has few garages and we estimate that we would need at least 25 officers (we planned originally for 40) to reduce car theft. Residents also complain that they don’t see our officers enough, and this is true. We are applying to the provincial government for bridging funds so that we can employ more officers while the subscriber base is built up.

Changes in Reported Crime in Observatory

 CRIME  FEB 1997  FEB 1998
Burglary (res)  30  4
Burglary (bus)  12  5
Theft  14  6
Theft of m/vehicle  9  8
Theft out of m/vehicle  54  32
Robbery  8  2
Assault  9  0
Rape  1  1
Murder/ attempted murder 2 1
Drugs 5 1
Total 144 60


Obswatch is essentially a patrolling organisation. Response time is fast because the suburb can be covered on a bike in minutes. Officers can radio police armed-response units to deal with incidents that require arms and, for an extra R20 a month, will investigate activated house alarms by arrangement with the security company concerned. (We learnt early on to leave the technical business of monitoring alarms to specialists.) Our officers have become community workers as well as crime fighters, performing innumerable small and helpful tasks for residents. The office is a centre for the reporting of missing persons, lost dogs and property.

All policing raises questions about the relations of the individual and the state: the separation of powers, central versus local control, protection from vigilantes as well criminals, and human rights. At Obswatch we are aware that civilians cannot simply be handed control over the activities of trained police reservists. Our mission statement emphasises that it operates under the South African Constitution that now includes a Bill of Rights. From the outset the commander of Woodstock police station or his deputy attended and advised Obswatch meetings, while a police reservist commander and the local ward councillor are ex-officio members of the Obswatch board. We have appointed a retired senior policeman as commanding officer (his references were carefully checked with the SAPS) and he liaises with the Woodstock command every week. Officers on the beat act at their own discretion, but, if necessary, any decision they take can be referred to the CO. Obswatch’s code of conduct is very strict and the discipline imposed by the CO is one of the board’s chief concerns. In the past nine months the officers have made about 130 arrests — many of them after radio or telephone alerts from Woodstock police. There have been no allegations of unlawful arrest, malpractice or use of excessive force, though two officers were cautioned early on for hitting an unruly street person.

Although the officers are trained and registered SAPS constables, for legal reasons we employ them in their personal capacities. Thus they do not wear police uniforms or insignia when working for us, but armbands which announce that they are Obswatch officers. Understandably they do so with some reluctance, because they are proud of being trained and experienced policemen and would prefer to wear their police uniforms. In addition any arrests they make when on duty for Obswatch are citizen’s arrests and they do not take statements.

There is another civilian organisation employing reservists, Rent-a-Cop, that operates in central Cape Town and Seapoint and is led by city councillor Chris Joubert. Their officers do wear police uniforms, and work out of central police stations, though they are financed by business and, to a lesser extent, residents. This has led to protracted debate about the constitutionality of private citizens controlling police personnel. Councillor Joubert and the local SAPS commissioner have been working on a formal solution to this legal question and an announcement is expected soon.

Whether a community force wears police uniforms or not, the separation of powers remains vital. A little story might help illustrate the point. Just after we started Obswatch I was walking from the office and saw an old street man trying to beat his wife. An Obswatch officer was nearby and I found myself shouting: “Arrest him!” As I did so, I felt that this was precisely what I should not do as CEO of Obswatch. An arrest should be a policing decision. I am grateful that this minor incident happened early; it was what Muslims call a “brush of the angel’s wing”, a blessed warning.

Obswatch is now approaching solvency and we hope a permanent role in the community. About 1000 households subscribe at present bringing in revenue of approximately R50 000 per month (not all sub-scribers are regular payers), while expenditure is about R43 000 per month. Our overdraft has been regularly reduced by R3000 per month donated by Spar Western Cape and we are helped by people who either volunteer their time or work for very little pay. If 70 per cent of residents sub–scribed, revenue would be in the vicinity of R115 000 per month and we could provide a Rolls Royce policing service. It would be money well spent. The monthly cost of crimes against prop-erty in Observatory (calculated by making conservative estimates of R4000 per domestic bur-glary, R8000 per business burglary, R40 000 per car etc and multiplying them by SAPS figures for reported crime) has dropped from about R1.3 million per month in early 1997 to R300 000 at present.

Insurance companies are saving fortunes, but do not respond well to suggestions that they might help in funding the administration of Obswatch. And although Obswatch enforces Cape Town city by-laws our applications for a grant have been turned down. Informally we are told that the city cannot justify assistance to a suburb that already has some policing when there are many suburbs with virtually none. But people who manage to do something are just as important as those who do not: our voluntary board of directors has onerous management duties which require meeting every week for at least three hours.

If there were Obswatches round the country the long-term result would be less strain on the official purse. It must be reasonable to fund such initiatives once they have a constitution, are registered as a Section 21 company, have established a police force and had a significant effect on crime. State funding should help such organisations through the very difficult early stages to self-sufficiency.

It would also be easier to set-up community policing organisations in the future if our police were not so centrally controlled. Most western democracies have local police forces answerable to locally elected representatives, but in South Africa only Durban still has its own metropolitan force; it dates from the 1890s. The Police Service Amendment bill now before Parliament will allow other towns to resuscitate metropolitan forces, though their financing remains to be decided. Some unimaginative officials have promptly said that there is not the money for the job. The truth is that the money is not present for the job because it has not been raised for the job. Policing is not so expensive per house in a medium-size suburb — provided that the money is not wasted on excessive administration and that it does not get lost in the national pool.

In the absence of adequate state-financed policing, an organisation such as ours fills a gap that might otherwise tempt people to take the law into their own hands. According to the provincial police spokesman, Senior Superintendent John Sterrenberg, police effectiveness is actually reduced in areas where vigilante groups attempt to arrest or shoot criminals because such activities increase the police workload (Cape Times, April 7 1998). However, he said, bodies such as Obswatch that “seek co-operation and not confrontation and in doing so contribute towards the safety of their own community are an example to all”.