South Africa

If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? 10111?

By Khadija Patel 24 January 2013

The national police emergency line, 10111, is said to be the ‘electronic front door’ to the South African Police Services, but for many South Africans that door remains stubbornly shut. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Despite our best efforts to insulate ourselves and homes from the scourge of violent crime in South Africa, it sometimes takes just a short drive outside of the protection of high walls, electric fencing, burglar alarms and boom gates to be accosted by its harsh reality.

This reporter’s father, a 56-year-old man who’s lived all his life in Johannesburg, in defiance of the scourge and, largely, without any scars to show for it, was caught in the middle of a shootout between armed private security guards and suspected hijackers on Wednesday morning. As bullets flew past him my father called the SAPS emergency hotline, 10111. Another man on the scene had tried minutes before him to call the police to no avail. My dad’s call was answered promptly. He tried to describe the scene in front of him and also rattled off the intersection at which it was happening.

In response, the 10111 operator was irritated.

“Don’t shout at me!” she said, before hanging up.

When I asked my father later in the day if he was feeling any ill effects from witnessing the shootout, he said, “We live in South Africa, this is how it goes.” And yet, despite my father’s apparent resignation to shootouts being a part of life in South Africa, it would be understandable if he was indeed shouting into the phone when he spoke to the 10111 operator. How many people can actually keep calm when confronted with such a scene? If my father’s tone of voice was indeed heightened, should the good people at the SAPS not be able to handle a slightly hysterical man at the scene of a violent crime? Whats more, they should understand the high urgency and immediacy of the danger that caller was in.

Gauteng police spokesperson Brigadier Neville Malila insists that operators at 10111 are all trained to expect heightened emotions during calls to the police hotline. “It’s part of the training manual,” he said, adding that operators are coached to first extract the details of an incident before offering basic counselling to callers.

Police officers did arrive at the scene, an hour and a half after the incident took place. The body of a suspected hijacker was taken away, the guns disappeared and normalcy resumed. It was, after all, just another shootout in Johannesburg. And yet, the next time it happens how do we actually get through to the police?

“We’ll investigate the incident,” Malila said, explaining that South Africans dissatisfied with their experience of the police emergency line could lodge complaints using a number dedicated to complaints about the police emergency line, 082 778 0402.

My father’s encounter with the police hotline prompted me to find other examples of similar experiences when calling 10111.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa himself acknowledges that one of the common complaints he receives about the SAPS is that the emergency police line is inefficient.

Last December Mthethwa said at the opening of the Mangaung 10111 Command Centre, “Almost on a weekly basis, as the police leadership we are interacting directly with the communities. One of the prominent complaints and dissatisfaction that is shared with us is around the slow response time with calls that are logged within our 10111 centres.”

Last year, auditor-general Terence Nombembe in his annual audit of the SAPS discovered that, rather shockingly, nearly 60% of the crimes reported to SAPS 10111 call centres don’t get properly registered. And because of that, they don’t get investigated.

Mthethwa however, is confident that the 10111 call centres are now better equipped to serve South Africans.

“Two years ago, we piloted a flagship 10111 project in partnership with Business Against Crime South Africa in Midrand, Gauteng. The project delivered excellent results which were compatible with industry standards. Some of the notable outcomes resulting from the intervention have included assessments and quicker turn-around response calls, effective monitoring systems and significant financial savings to the department,” he said.

Johan Burger, senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, however, does not believe the SAPS has implemented any measures recently that have assisted the efficiency of the emergency call centres. “A number of things ostensibly done to improve things have actually led to the degradation of the service,” he said.

He mentions the move to create a single provincial call centre in Gauteng, from six regional call centres previously as, one such measure that has achieved the opposite of what it intended. “If for some reason there is a shutdown at the call centre then the whole province will be affected,” he says.

“The appointment of civilians to call centres to free up trained police officers to do other work has also caused inefficiency.”

According to Burger, civilians simply do not have adequate operational knowledge of police work.

It is, however, not all bad.

One Cape Town resident, who asked not to be named for fear of perlemoen poachers sneaking up on him during his morning swim, was particularly full of praise for the efficiency of the police emergency line.

He said he often sees suspicious looking divers in the water at strange hours from his home overlooking the beach and rocks. “I mean, who goes diving recreationally or legitimately at 5am on a Monday morning?” he asks. “I also often find perlemoen shells in the kelp after I go for a surf. If I suspect that they are poachers, I phone 10111 and make an anonymous call, and the police are usually there within minutes to follow up. This has happened about three times last year.”

He stressed: “They are very prompt.”

Like him, others have complimented the 10111 call centres and operators for an efficient, prompt service.

Still others, however, have been left disappointed by their experience with the police hotline.

One woman from Protea North in southern Johannesburg explained that while she tried to report her brother missing last Friday, the 10111 operator she spoke to giggled while taking down details from her.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I don’t know if they were having a party there or what? There was a lot of noise in the background and she was very abrupt with me.”

Last year, Primedia head of news and current affairs Yusuf Abramjee (this reporter’s uncle) was sworn at while making a 10111 call to report suspicious activity in Laudium, Pretoria. Abramjee said his complaint was investigated by the Independent Complaints Directorate and although the recordings of his call could not be found, disciplinary action was taken against the 10111 operator.

The Draft National Instruction of the SAPS describes the 10111 centres as the “electronic front door” to the organisation. The experience of some South Africans however proves that the front door, electronic or not, often remains stubbornly shut. Who then do we call? DM

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Photo: Johannesburg (Greg Marinovich)


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