Recently it was made public that Port Elizabeth has followed the example set by Cape Town and implemented their own Ghost Squad (unmarked police vehicles). This new setup is part of the city’s recently (finally) launched Metro Police.
The launch release was published in several places and in it was claimed an early success with one of the units pulling over an overloaded taxi shortly after deployment. This article is in the first link above, but to summarise, the taxi in question carried 43 children (a 16-seater).
A good start, right? Well, it is certainly the start of the wrinkles. An overloaded taxi cannot eject additional passengers before being stopped by a marked police vehicle, so that’s one use that isn’t specific to an unmarked team.
The same applies to someone on their cellphone, a vehicle with bald tyres, broken lights, is unlicensed, running with false numberplates, has an under-age or unlicensed driver, is exceeding the speed limit or any other transgression.
Port Elizabeth’s mayor, Athol Trollip, posted on his Facebook page (you can see the ongoing posts there) “… members of the Ghost Squad will often be dressed in official uniform and will always carry municipal safety and security ID cards.”
Well, that’s good. Do you know what a municipal safety and security ID card is supposed to look like? How do you confirm its authenticity? In Johannesburg drivers are pulled over by marked SAPS vehicles and robbed by people wearing SAPS uniform. The obvious problem being that you don’t know what your situation is until it is too late to react.
Additionally, Trollip posted “… Illegal weapons and drugs used by serious criminals often travel in particular cars along certain routes.” amongst the comments on his original post. This highlights two additional points. Firstly, since police are already aware of these cars and routes, having an unmarked vehicle makes no difference here. Secondly, guaranteed if the police know the criminal cars, the reverse is also true – which defeats the point of unmarked vehicles.
Then there’s another point to consider. Not everything that looks official always is. The city has made use of private contractors in the past to operate video cameras to record traffic violations or provide equipment (speed traps or technologically-equipped vehicles) under contract. According to these agreements, the city would get a cut of the proceeds from prosecutions while the contractor would receive their share.
On the surface this seems only fair since the companies in question should be reimbursed for providing the facilities the city uses. The issue here is the payments for that equipment. Those payments needs to be made, irrespective of how much income they bring to the city.
Does the metro actually own these ghost cars and is the equipment in them something the city paid for, or is under a lease/hire agreement of sorts?
Previously when Kevin Jacoby was the chief financial officer for the metro (I believe he left for Cape Town in 2011) he berated the local Traffic Department for costing the city’s budget a loss something in the order of R50m for not issuing enough fines.
Translate that to the Metro force, which would appear to be a rather expensive exercise, and that requires the issuing of a lot of fines. These fines must be generated somehow and it is not surprising that many of the comments on the mayor’s above-mentioned post indicate that people feel they will be exploited and victimised. There will be a lot of pressure to generate income to pay for this equipment – and then to add to the city’s income.
Two last points to consider, firstly when it comes to law enforcement, which approach would you prefer? When someone jumps a traffic light or stop street and gets pulled over by a cop in an unmarked car or they don’t jump the intersection in the first place because there’s a marked police vehicle and they know they’ll get bust? Which of these two scenarios is safer for you and your family?
Then there’s the question of pursuit – people running from unmarked police vehicles which result in high-speed chases through the city streets as they attempt to elude police that have “snuck up” on them.
I remain unconvinced of the efficacy of an unmarked force of this type. If your intention is to avoid enforcement and rather focus on punishing infringement, then certainly it will have the edge on marked vehicles. It will take about three months or so before a large part of the city knows the registration and appearance of all of these ghost cars anyway.