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Cape Town - Crime-fighting has gone viral, as the people turn to social media to identify crime hot spots and help track down criminals.
Facebook pages such as “Traffic fines, cameras and updates” and “Is it stolen?” are becoming popular, growing by thousands of users each week.
Posts aren’t limited to road incidents either; they also provide real-time information about criminal activities such as shootings and robberies.
During a recent service delivery protest, several users were able to update its progress, almost hourly.
“Thank you for the info. I was able to take an alternative route to work, thanks guys,” one comment read.
They also try to help solve crimes by listing licence plates of stolen cars, or cars involved in hit-and-run incidents.
Ebrahiem Visser, from Mitchells Plain, used the traffic fines, camera and updates page to track down his stolen car a month ago.
“My car was stolen from my front yard and, after reporting the case to the police, I posted a description of my car and the licence plate number on the page. A few hours later I got a reply from someone who had seen it in Kraaifontein. I called the police and we found it abandoned in a parking lot in the industrial area.”
Most major cities in SA have their own version of “citizen-only initiatives”, which function as a warning system and a form of public policing.
Social media has long been used to provide information such as traffic updates, but South Africans have increasingly begun to turn to it as a way to fight crime, says social media expert Arthur Goldstuck.
“Internationally, Twitter and Facebook have been used as a tool against crime for years. But South Africa has only recently begun to explore the full potential of social media as a weapon, by using it as a crime database. The latest trend by users is to overlay crime hot spots on to Google maps, although the process is very much in its early days.”
He added that social media was being used as an alternative to police.
“Traditional methods such as the 10111 number are not perceived as efficient by the public, and can leave people frustrated. Therefore, people are turning to social media in an attempt to set up a public police network.”
Milton Abrahams, from Heideveld, said it helped him keep track of crime and trends.
“There are dozens of crime hot spots you would never know about until you’re in an area, or fall victim to it. For example, I live near Vanguard Drive, a smash-and-grab hot spot. The posts on social media network help me find out when, where and how most attacks happen.
“Criminals have allegedly begun throwing flaming bottles at cars to get them to stop, and hijack them. I read of a few reports on this via social media networks, and despite the dangers of these attacks, the police never issue direct warnings to the public.”
Goldstuck said while there were obvious drawbacks to social media as a crime fighter, such as false information and the potential for vigilantism, a major point of contention was how it impacted on the relationship between the police and the public.
“In some countries it is fairly common for police to post crime statistics daily on social-media platforms in order to help fight crime, and improve the relationship between the police and the public.
“But in a country like SA, where crime statistics are a major source of contention, the more the public knows about crime, the more its shows up the police. If the public can track crime themselves, then more questions will be asked as to why the police are unable to do the same.”
Gareth Newham, head of the Institute for Security Studies’s Crime and Justice Programme, said police should not be held responsible for badly-crafted policies.
He said crime statistics are only released once a year, and are already six months out of date when they come out.
“The policy is designed to minimise any sense of accountability by politicians in order to protect themselves. These policies should have been updated years ago.
“Any good relationship is fundamentally based on trust and communication, and this does not exist between the police and the public, not because of the police, but the bad policies that govern them.”