Tackling Gun Crime in South Africa

5th September 2020

In July 2019 I was incredibly privileged to spend three weeks working closely with law enforcement, forensic firearm examiners (a.k.a. ballistics analysts), senior managers and Councillors in Cape Town and Gauteng, to learn about gun crime investigation in South Africa.

During this time, I meet with those who detect, co-ordinate, respond, investigate and forensically link gun crimes to understand the nature and complexity of preventing and tackling shooting incidents in South Africa. I saw first hand both similarities and differences between individuals’ behaviours following shootings in the Cape Flats compared to the UK. In the Cape Flats:

  • Significantly more shots are discharged between rival gangs, often with full magazines being emptied from each semi-automatic pistol involved;
  • Gang members stand on opposite sides of open ground, such as a community recreation area, and appear to shoot arbitrarily towards the rival gang;
  • Although many shots are discharged, luckily most bullets fired do not hit anyone, but they often damage property and get embedded in the surrounding environment;
  • When bullets do hit people, unfortunately the victims are often innocent bystanders, unless the person is a targeted close-range ‘hit’;
  • The shooter rapidly hands over the gun to another person at the scene, who is often on a bike, and they quickly ride away;
  • When shootings occur, on a weekly and even daily basis, those living close by come out to see who is doing the shooting and whether anyone was injured, which can make evidence preservation and crime scene management more challenging;
  • Fired cartridge cases discharged from the gun may be removed from the scene prior to emergency service or police arrival, which makes recovering bullet evidence important to link shooting incidents together.

Detecting and Responding to Gunfire

Unfortunately, not all gun violence or shootings are reported to the police. From the analysis undertaken, gunfire is typically reported to police less than 10% or 20% of the time, and this statistic is likely to be similar across the world. Reasons for not reporting gun crime may include witnesses and victims being fearful of violence if they report it, or the thought that justice won’t be served even if they do report it. As a result, gunshot detection systems, such as ShotSpotter, can be installed to objectively collect information and notify police of any firearms discharged within the area covered by the technology in less than 1 minute.

When police receive a ShotSpotter alert through to their smartphone, they can immediately respond and attend the location of the shooting. The following video explains how ShotSpotter works:

In South Africa, ShotSpotter has been piloted in Westbury (Johannesburg), Helenvale (Port Elizabeth) and two areas of Cape Town; Hanover Park and Manenberg, where the system had been used for over 3 years. In the video below, Alderman Jean-Pierre (JP) Smith, the Mayco member for Safety and Security, briefly demonstrates the value of the ShotSpotter technology to police investigations in Cape Town.

Once a shooting is detected or reported, three law enforcement agencies/organisations may attend in South Africa:

  • Metro Police who work to prevent crime in and around municipal areas;
  • South African Police Service (SAPS), whose purpose it is to investigate shootings, other firearm crimes and gun violence;
  • Local Criminal Records Centre (LCRC) who document and process the crime scene, collecting any forensic evidence.

During a 7 hour ride along with the Gang and Drug Task Team within the Cape Flats, I was able to observe random street stop and searches where knives were recovered, the search and eviction of drug dealers from rented accommodation (rental stock units) and be the first on the scene of a murder where I helped locate firearm evidence related to the shooting. To gain some insight as to what it is like to go out with this Team, please watch the following video, but be aware there is graphic content within:

From my perspective, Metro Police and SAPS are trying to reduce gun violence and crime in the country. However, they face many significant challenges including those that are political and socio-economic. Whist I met and interviewed some really exceptional and dedicated individuals in both these organisations, they admitted that the experience and level of effort put in to tackling gun crime was not consistent across all staff within their agencies. The approach and methods used in Cape Town do appear to be more successful than elsewhere in South Africa based on the information reported in the public domain and my experience; however, I did spend two thirds of my time in and around Cape Town.

In shooting incidents, forensic firearm evidence recovered from the scene may include fired bullets, fired cartridge cases, firearm(s), live ammunition and/or gunshot residue. Often the firearm is not recovered at the location of the shooting, but may be found at a later date as part of the police investigation. Where there is gunshot detection system and real-time monitoring of CCTV cameras, this can help police track the movements of both the shooter and the firearm to apprehend them and recover the firearm. Firearms can be found in people’s homes, business properties, vehicles or public spaces, for example. If someone has been shot, their clothing may be recovered during a medical examination, as will any bullets that can be removed from the individual. Clothing and other items may also be submitted from suspects and/or witnesses to determine if there is any forensic evidence to link them to the shooting.

The evidence recovered from the crime scene may then be transported to a SAPS forensic laboratory for further analysis. The analysis undertaken depends on the type of case, the question(s) being asked by the investigators and the type of forensic evidence submitted.

Forensic ballistics units in South Africa are excellently equipped with the technologies required to analyse firearm evidence and reconstruct shooting incidents, and their forensic training and mentoring programme is possibly the most organised, advanced and well established that I have seen. Forensic firearm experts may be called to the crime scene, but this may only be if the case is overly complex and/or a reconstruction of the shooting is required by SAPS or the court. Unfortunately, the working relationship between Metro Police and SAPS is generally not as good as it could be and this is making crime prevention and subsequent investigations more difficult.

Potential for Enhancing UK Practice

Similar (CCTV, IBIS, Analyst’s Notebook, PCEM) and additional (ShotSpotter, ROWA, biometric recognition) technologies are used in comparison to the UK. In my opinion, considering implementing, or at least piloting ShotSpotter (or other gunshot detection system) in the UK may offer us the biggest potential for increasing the detection and rapid response to firearm discharges. Use of such technology has also been shown to increase the amount of firearm evidence recovered from crime scenes and in combination with IBIS and crime analysis, leads to a significant increase in intelligence to further aid criminal investigations and crime prevention.

Through my discussions with local council, senior leaders responsible for safety and security, detectives and forensic scientists, I have really been able to understand that South Africa has so much more to offer than is often communicated to us through international media. Yes, South Africa has some major challenges in reducing crime, but many of these challenges are faced by other countries to lesser or greater extents and often stem from deeper rooted societal problems that take significant time to address.

The City of Cape Town has successfully implemented a range of community engagement initiatives that empower citizens to be an integral part of the solution to reduce crime in gang hot spots. Residents can volunteer to become an accredited Neighbourhood Watcher and this scheme has been considered as the most cost-effective initiative in crime scene management and reporting incidents. I feel that UK policing could also consider (re)introducing some aspects of this initiative to further strengthen neighbourhood policing and the valuable work done by our PCSOs in local communities.

We would be naive in thinking that in developed countries we do not face some of the same issues as faced in South Africa. Resourcing constraints and people are often the biggest barriers to developing more integrated working practices and a more effective, efficient and connected criminal justice system.

As a result of my Fellowship, I have been able to work more closely with UK police forces and our National Ballistics Intelligence Service to further enhance our understanding, policies and practices to investigating UK gun crime. Change always takes time, but by all sectors of the criminal justice system and our local communities working more closely together, the better we can be at detecting, investigating, prosecuting and hopefully preventing crime in the future.

All of this insight and experience would not have been possible without the support from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and The Lady Hind Trust. I urge any UK resident who has a project in mind that could benefit UK society to find out more and apply for the next round of Fellowships in 2021!

Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Bolton-King. The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented in this blog and its content are those of the author and not of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, The Lady Hind Trust, Research4Justice, Staffordshire University or any other organisations in South Africa or the UK, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of this website.

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