OPINION: How can the police reduce robberies?

To be confronted by an armed intruder in your home intent on stealing your belongings is a spine-chilling experience. In an instant your sanctuary turns into a prison of fear. You might be aware that the victims of most armed robberies are not wounded. However, there is no way of knowing whether in this instance you or your loved ones may be wounded, raped or murdered.

For this reason, the trauma of being in an armed robbery, whether at home, on the streets, or in a place of work, haunts most people long after the incident has ended. It is no wonder then that the National Victims of Crime Survey shows that housebreaking and home robberies are the crimes that people fear the most.

Therefore, it should be of great concern that most forms of aggravated robbery have been increasing for the past three years. But why are we experiencing such persistent increases in robberies and why are the police not able to get on top of this crime?

Typically, the police record an aggravated robbery when a person reports that an armed perpetrator threatened to use violence against them in order to steal something of value. In the most recent statistics for 2014/15, a total of 129,045 aggravated robberies were reported to the police. This is an 8.4% increase, or an additional 10,082 attacks when compared to the previous year.

This broad category was decreasing until 2011/12 when a total of 100,769 robberies were recorded by the police. This means that in a period of three years, the number of attacks increased by 28,276 incidents, or by almost 78 additional attacks each day on average.

A majority of these cases, around 58%, take place in public spaces such as on the streets or in parks and are typically committed by one or two young men carrying knives. After committing a relatively large number of street robberies over a period of years, some of these robbers obtain firearms and progress to more lucrative forms of robbery such as hijacking, or attacks on small businesses and homes.

Some of these robbers then progress to even more lucrative options such as truck hijacking or cash-in-transit heists where a single job can net millions of rands. Each progression requires the perpetrators to become more organised given that more planning is required to successfully pull off an attack. These robbers also need to be well networked so that they can quickly dispose of the goods that they steal for an acceptable amount of cash.

So how do the police effectively reduce these robberies? The simple answer is by increasing the risks to those involved in these crimes. This entails increasing the arrest and conviction rates of robbers and those trading in stolen goods. Given that a single gang of three people can commit dozens of robberies a year, incarcerating these individuals will reduce the instances of robbery. Moreover, increasing the conviction rates for those involved in robberies also serves as a deterrent to others contemplating involvement in this type of crime. A good practical example of how this can be achieved can be found in the SAPS Gauteng Aggravated Robbery Strategy that was implemented from 2009 to 2011. The strategy was the product of international research into effective anti-robbery policing strategies and given effect by the Gauteng SAPS provincial head office.

The provincial SAPS established a dedicated Crime Management Centre (CMC) at its head office in Parktown to co-ordinate and drive the strategy. Its primary purpose was to provide intelligence and technical support to the detectives investigating cases of armed robbery. This was achieved through the daily tracking of all reported robbery incidents in the province, linking cases to suspects who were operating across police station precinct boundaries and co-ordinating the necessary intelligence, forensic and other technical support required by investigators working to identify the gangs and networks that they were part of.

To ensure a sound investigative standard across the province, 21 'task teams' were established consisting of dedicated and experienced detectives. Each task team investigated cases reported to a cluster of police stations which enabled them to track gangs that operated across precinct boundaries. Unhindered by large and diverse case-loads, these detectives were able to focus their attention exclusively on tracking robbery suspects and gathering evidence against them. These task teams handle all hijacking, residential and robbery cases reported to the police in each of the 134 police precincts that then existed across Gauteng.

To increase the chances of arresting robbers while they were travelling to or from crime scenes, the SAPS, Gauteng provincial traffic officers together and the various metropolitan police departments in the province stepped up their joint road-block operations that were held at strategic times and locations. Moreover, a certain number of rapid response vehicles were on standby 24 hours a day at strategic locations in the case of a call about a robbery in progress.

The implementation of the strategy was overseen by a task team consisting of senior SAPS operational commanders and senior officials from the Gauteng department of community safety that met monthly to track the results. During the first nine months of its implementation, notable successes were apparent. The arrest rates of robbers increased by 100%, the number of cases withdrawn from court due to insufficient evidence dropped by 20% and the conviction rates for these crimes increased by 14%.

By the end of 2011, it was clear that this strategy had achieved its desired result. The 2011/12 crime statistics showed that over a two-year period, residential robberies had decreased by 20%, business robberies by 19% and hijackings by 32% in Gauteng. Unfortunately, this strategy was then abandoned following a change in police leadership in the province and all robbery categories subsequently started to rise.

This example shows us that with clear strategy and supporting protocols in place, the SAPS has the necessary operational expertise, resources and technology to effectively reduce robbery. Unfortunately, there has been no such strategy in place since 2011.

Arguably, the ability of the SAPS to develop effective strategies integrating different functions of the SAPS has been undermined by what the National Development Plan (NDP) terms "a serial crises of top management" in the then police service. In the seven years since Jackie Selebi was placed on special leave in January 2008, there have been two acting and three full time SAPS national commissioners.

As a highly centralised organisation, provincial and local police commanders have little leeway to develop their own strategies and structures. The Gauteng robbery strategy was developed and implemented at a time when Selebi was on leave and acting SAPS national commissioner Tim Williams didn't interfere with the Gauteng SAPS initiative.

Currently, national commissioner Riah Phiyega is about to face a board of inquiry into her fitness to hold office as a result of her role in the unjustifiable police shooting of mineworkers at Marikana. This is undoubtedly causing some amount of uncertainty among the top leadership echelon of the SAPS. Nevertheless, it will take more than simply replacing the SAPS national commissioner if we are too see notable improvements in policing in the foreseeable future.

Far too many people have been appointed to SAPS management positions despite not having the necessary skills, expertise or integrity for the posts they hold. It is for this reason that the NDP recommends that a national police board be established to oversee the assessment of all officers so as to determine whether they are able to fulfil the requirements of the posts they hold. Only once the SAPS has a strong top management echelon of the best possible police men and women, will the necessary reforms to improve policing be able to take place.

Fortunately, minister of police Nkosinathi Nhleko recently announced the establishment of an independent panel of local and international experts to develop recommendations for reforming the SAPS. The recommendations are to be implemented by a 'transformation task team" chaired by deputy minister of police Maggie Sotyu. This may provide the opportunity for the type of reform initiative that will ultimately result in improved levels of professionalism in the SAPS that is necessary for crimes such as aggravated robbery to be effectively tackled.

Gareth Newham is head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow him on Twitter: gdnewham