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Actually, we can solve our crime problem

By Niki Moore

At 4am on Thursday morning I woke up to find a shadowy stranger standing next to my bed, bending over my bedside table.

The figure was silhouetted against the streetlight coming in from my window — an unfamiliar male shape with a rucksack in his back — and I sat up in bed and shouted in anger, wondering even while I did so he if would attack me with a knife. But he disappeared. I hit the panic button and then went to check on my children, wondering how he had got in. I am security conscious to a fault, and every night I check on doors and windows and set the alarm. The mystery was soon solved. It was a hot night, and my daughter, against all my blandishments, had left a balcony door open and the security door unlocked. All the security in the world is no defence against human carelessness.

The thief had gone through our bedrooms and taken cellphones and money. I still feel cold when I remember the feeling of waking up and seeing an intruder in my home, in my bedroom, within touching distance.

People who heard about the incident told me how lucky I was. We had not been hurt, only two cellphones and a wallet had been stolen. We are alright.

But we are not alright. We do not feel lucky. I feel violated, angry and depressed. My children are listless and scared. No, we are not lucky.

The police, when they arrived, were not interested in taking too much trouble. It seemed they resented the paperwork, made no suggestions and sent through a case number. They regard it as case closed. It’s a petty crime, they have more important things to worry about.

But this got me thinking about the nature of crime and justice. I don’t think you suffer any less trauma when you are ”lucky”. A decade ago I was the victim of an armed robbery: pistol-whipped and tied up while a gang roamed the house, taking what they could and destroying the rest. I can’t say that I feel any better that this recent crime was less serious. OK, so there are no physical signs like bruises, and the economic cost is less, but the feeling of violation is the same.

I don’t sleep well at night, and I wonder if I should be bringing my children up in a country where a single slip of vigilance allows someone to come into my house and violate my privacy. I take pleasure in sleeplessly planning revenge against this chap when we catch him: my current favourite scenario is that we take him out to sea at night in a rubber duck, throw him overboard and tell him to swim home.

A security consultant told me that it is not difficult to track a cellphone, but the cellphone companies are reluctant to spend time and money doing so in order to solve little crimes where no-one was injured and not much was taken. It’s also not difficult to track bank cards (the thief tried to use one of the stolen bank cards) and get a picture on a CCTV camera. But all of this takes time and expense.

And that, I think, is why we are not winning the war against crime. We have the ”minor” crimes that no-one worries about, and the ”major” crimes of death, injury and destruction, which warrant investigation.

I say that we should think again. There is no ”minor” crime. We should be prosecuting the small thefts as vigorously as we pursue the murders and rapes. It’s New York’s ”broken window” approach, to which our police ministry plays lip service. (One senior official once referred to it as the ”open window” approach, which indicated that he really did not understand what it was.)

The ”broken window” policy has three pillars. The first one is based on the fact that crime is a factor of urban decay, and that a single broken window in a building is the thin end of the wedge. One unrepaired broken window leads to others, then more dilapidation — until a point is reached where a neighbourhood becomes a slum. Fix the broken windows, prevent the descent into grime, keep communities proud of their surroundings and crime is less likely to gain a foothold.

The second pillar is based on the fact that all criminals have to start somewhere. If someone gets away with a petty crime, they will gain experience, confidence and practice, and escalate up to serious crime. That fence-jumper has passed another test, and will now be more confident during his next robbery. Perhaps I scared him enough that he considers arming himself in case he is confronted again. If he is not stopped, he will continue to burgle … and worse.

The third pillar is the fact that criminals are not, by their nature, law-abiding citizens. It is unlikely that a serious criminal like an armed robber or murderer will pay his TV licence or his parking fines, or obey the rules of the road. He might shoot a taxi-boss today and snatch a cell-phone tomorrow. By clamping down on the small crimes, police very often catch the murderers and rapists as well.

Another point is that if a robber is caught and sentenced to six months in jail, he just comes out a smarter and more determined criminal, having learned a lot of tricks while behind bars. There is no restorative justice (unless you bring a civil case — good luck!) so the victim is still a victim while the criminal has progressed to another rung on the ladder of successful crime. This really, really needs to change.

There is a constant call to re-introduce the death penalty. But a sociologist told me that the severity of the punishment is not so much a deterrent … the real deterrent is the certainly of getting caught. This is so important that it needs to be repeated: the severity of the punishment is less of a deterrent than the certainty of getting caught.

So — we need to clamp down on urban grime and petty crime. We need to introduce a system of restorative justice. And we need to do it ourselves. I can’t pressure an indifferent police force to take the trouble to track this criminal down, so I have hired a private detective to do it. I am going to follow this case through the courts to make sure a lazy prosecutor doesn’t withdraw the charge (this has happened before … an individual charged with 13 cases of fraud — who I had arrested and handed over — has never been prosecuted because the prosecutor had other priorities).

We all expect the police and security guards to take care of us because we pay them to do so. But my recommendation is: act on the petty crime, the mugging, the snatched handbag, the opportunistic burglary. Report it, consult with experts. Work with the police, but if you aren’t lucky enough to get a conscientious and dedicated police officer, hire a private investigator or do the legwork yourself. After a while it gets tiring, and you might be tempted to give up — after all, it was a petty crime. But for the sake of all future victims, you do need to act. You just might be helping to neutralise tomorrow’s crime kingpin.

Niki Moore has been a journalist in South Africa for 30 years, living through some of the best and worst this country has to offer. And as her teachers and mother used to say, “She has an answer for everything!”

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