Since February, the cell phone allowances of officers in specialised units such as crime intelligence, and those driving patrol vehicles, have been slashed.
With the police’s 10111 operators – most of whom are poorly trained civilians – notoriously incapable of handling calls properly, and often taking addresses incorrectly, a cell phone could be the difference between your life and your death.
Research shows that in house robberies, which police statistics indicate have increased, people have only three minutes in which to call the police before being overpowered.
But the average police response time, according to officers in the thick of it, can be 20 minutes or more.
If in your panic you drop a call to 10111, or the operator fails to get all the essential information from you, or call you back, there’s little if anything patrol officers can do to find you.
Often, say Pretoria policemen, if they cannot find a crime scene – especially if it is “minor” crime, such as a housebreaking – they declare it “negative”.
The problem is that, says Unisa criminologist Rudolph Zinn, burglaries often turn into house robberies if the homeowners arrive when the burglars are still inside.
A Pretoria policeman said two weeks ago it took his colleagues an hour to find the victim of a house robbery, who had left his home to look for them, because a 10111 operator had failed to take his address correctly.
In another house robbery case, officers could not find the crime scene.
Although they had the correct street name, the robbery was in Rosebank, Johannesburg, not Pretoria.
“People are dying because of this [communication] bugger-up,” said a Centurion policeman.
Police spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi failed to respond to e-mailed questions about why cell phone allowances had been slashed and what is being done to improve the 10111 emergency service.
The Times understands that uncapped cell phone budgets of members of specialised units, whose informants tip them off about planned crimes, were cut to R350 a month.
The cell phone allowances of sector policing patrol officers are about R80 a month.
Research by Unisa and the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research paints a picture of millions of frustrated South Africans being driven to buying cell phones for their local police, plus airtime and two-way radios, to increase the chance that they can be reached in emergencies.
The research looked at communities in Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
“If you drop the call to your local police van, officers must have enough airtime to phone or SMS you back,” said Unisa criminologist Rudolph Zinn.
“If you phone, 10111 operators must be trained to ask you the right questions to get you the right help.”
He said problems with 10111 call centres included not being able to get through, and operators being unable to understand the nature of the emergency and get the police to respond quickly.
Zinn said research, which is now looking at Pretoria and West Rand communities, focused on crime patterns and communities’ frustrations about police communication systems.
“It shows that, in many cases, police in patrol vehicles either don’t answer their cell phones or don’t return calls.
“Many communities have been forced to buy their local police additional hand-held radios, cell phones and airtime.”
A crime intelligence officer said that as a result of the allowance reduction, many of his colleagues had resorted to using their own cell phones.
“It’s not like our informants can contact us on our police radios.”
A Pretoria police officer said that for eight years as a policing sector manager he had battled to get a cell phone.
“Each police station patrol vehicle has a cell phone, but only R80 of airtime on it.
“The airtime, if you’re lucky, lasts a week. If we receive a call and it’s dropped, we radio our station and get them to phone the complainant, which wastes time.”
A former 10111 operator said that in the past provinces were divided into policing sectors with each having its own call centre manned by police from that sector.
“For years now, 10111 centres have been centralised, with operators who have knowledge only of certain areas dispatching police to areas about which they have no knowledge.
“Combine this with incomplete information from crime victims and you have a disaster like last week, when we arrived at a Wierdabrug robbery only to find the real crime scene was in Rosebank,” a policeman says.
By Graeme Hosken for www.timeslive.co.za