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Flying squad too busy guarding VIP’s

Durban residents are under attack from brazen criminals who have targeted them at their homes and businesses. However, their first line of defence, the flying squad, is often unable to respond to life threatening emergencies.

Twenty years ago this elite, rapid response unit had more than 300 members with 15 high performance vehicles on the road at any time. Today the unit has shrunk to about 100 members who are deployed in the fight against crime. The others work in administration.

The unit currently operates with less than five or six high performance vehicles a shift. However, the area they protect is large - from Winklespruit and Umbumbulu in the south, to Hillcrest in the west, and Tongaat in the north.

On some occasions there is no one in the unit able to respond to 10111 emergencies because the unit is performing other duties like guarding politicians, diplomats and celebrities.

A case in point was when the Springboks rugby team were in Durban training for the World Cup. The flying squad was responsible for escorting them to and from their training facilities. Currently, they are doing the same for the New Zealand cricket team who are in Durban.

Some of the members of the unit are fed up. “It is not our responsibility to transport diplomats around when we could be fighting real crime. In some cases we are asked to transport people from the embassies to banks just so they can withdraw money. This distracts the unit from the work that we should really be doing. Due to performing these other duties, we sometimes do not have the capacity to respond to real crime; “This is not the job of the flying squad. What makes these diplomats and officials more important than our citizens?” said one member who requested anonymity.

Another policeman, who also did not want to be named, said the lack of vehicle maintenance was a serious issue.

“Some of our cars remain at the workshops for months and do not get maintained or repaired timeously. This leaves us in a difficult position.”

Several policemen said the unit should be responding to crimes that were in progress and that a separate unit should be formed for guarding. However, the police already have a VIP unit that provides protection for politicians.

Two members who previously belonged to the flying squad claimed the unit was poorly managed. Both claimed “the best of the best” had previously been taken into the unit. They were well trained in the use of weapons and were given high performance driver training.

Officers further alleged that the high number of crashes was due to drivers not getting adequate training.

Johan Burger, a senior researcher with the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) agreed the issues were of management and not resources.

“This issue of police management is a national crisis. Police have the resources but they just do not know how to take care of them.

“Proper inspections need to be done on all vehicles at least once a week. Earlier this year, the acting national police commissioner acknowledged that management was a problem so he set up a management intervention structure to deal with the issue. Keeping this in mind, maintenance and inspections of vehicles should be a priority right now,” said Burger.

He also said there were cases in which broken down vehicles were left in workshops for months without being repaired.

On the issue of VIP security and providing security for diplomats, Burger said: “We have a responsibility to protect our diplomats so this is a difficult one. This does not mean that they are more important than ordinary citizens but boils down to how we manage resources.”

Colonel Ivan Pillay who heads the Durban flying squad, said the unit was trying its best to fight crime and boosting staff morale was a challenge.

He denied that the unit was under-resourced but admitted that the maintenance of vehicles was one of their biggest challenges.

“When the vehicles are running for 12 hours a day, we cannot expect them not to have problems. We let the vehicles rest and then use another set for the new shift. We try our best to maintain them at all times.”

Pillay claimed there were at least eight to 10 vehicles on the road with some of them being posted to high-risk areas and this was sufficient for support. He said the unit was able to respond within five to six minutes if they were in the area. If not, they could take up to 17 minutes.

He said priority was given to the so called trio-crimes: matters of life and death and crimes that were “in progress”.

The lack of morale in the flying squad comes at a time when statistics show that vehicle hijackings, robberies and murders remain alarmingly high.

The brutal reality

  • In an Institute for Security Studies report last year, it was revealed that:
  • Every day, 49 people were killed and 48 people were victims of attempted murder.
  • There had been 12 773 vehicle hijackings. On average, 35 vehicles were hijacked every day in 2014/15.
  • An average of 56 households were attacked each day in 2014/15.
  • There were 20 281 incidents of crime. This statistic had passed the 20 000 mark for the first time.
  • Business robbery was on the increase. An average of 53 businesses (including schools and churches) were robbed a day.

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