COMMUNITY SAFETY Q&A
WITH NICO POTGIETER
1) How do I know whether a person or vehicle is “suspicious”?
“It is quite difficult to explain exactly what constitutes a suspicious person or vehicle as those of us with years of experience rely on a sixth sense to know when someone is up to no good.
For ordinary citizens it is important to get to know your neighbours and regular activities in your street; know who lives and moves in your surroundings, what vehicles they drive, what visitors they have, and who is in the area legitimately. Only when you know this will potential suspicious people or vehicles stand out to you.
Get to know who your neighbours’ domestic workers, gardeners, tenants, and/or regular visitors are. If your area is not a thoroughfare and there is no need for unknown people to be ambling in the street then it is easier to identify possible suspicious people. It is also important to interpret their behaviour and body language as they could still be driving or walking in the area innocently.
But if, for example, you notice a vehicle just driving around without any purpose, perhaps its occupants appearing too interested in the homes, vehicles, and people around them, and you see it on more than one occasion in the same area, that could be considered suspicious.
Likewise, if you see the same people continually walking up and down the street, not appearing to be going anywhere, or not living or working in the area, then depending on their behaviour they could also be suspicious.
Identifying suspicious people or vehicles in public places like parks, however, is a lot more difficult. But if you monitor them for a while and it seems like they are not there for any purpose, then you may perhaps feel they are suspicious. You need to look at the entire scenario. For example, if you see a car of occupants sitting in a park with their windows up, not eating anything, or socializing, perhaps even watching the people and houses nearby, then alarm bells could possibly ring. Suspects looking to carry out hijackings or house burglaries or invasions will often be in groups larger than two as these crimes are not easily done alone or in pairs.
Listen to your gut feel or intuition.”
2) If I see a suspicious person or vehicle, what should I do?
“You need to be observant and record as much detail as possible. Call the police or your security company immediately but be sure to take note of details such as car registration numbers, makes and models of vehicles, and description of the people, such as what they are wearing or identifiable marks. Be able to describe exactly where this vehicle or person is. You do not need to explain why you feel they are suspicious. The police or security company needs to check it out and then provide you with feedback. Do not try and interfere yourself.
If you come across a suspicious person in your street, you can ask them where they are going or what they are doing. If their story does not seem plausible or they tell you they are working for, are family of, or are visiting, a particular neighbour, and you know they are not, report it.
3) What “power” do I, as an ordinary citizen, have if I witness someone committing a crime and I am unable to wait until police or armed response arrive? Can I make a citizen’s arrest? And if so, how do I do this?
“The Criminal Procedure Act, section 42 of 1997, does allow for people to make citizens arrests. According to the act any private person may, without a warrant, arrest a suspect in the following situations:
1) If the private person witnesses the suspect committing or attempting to commit a crime, or if the private person “reasonably believes” that the suspect committed the offence
2) If the private person “reasonably believes” that the suspect has committed an offence and is escaping from someone who has the authority to arrest him/her for the crime
3) If the private person witnesses the suspect engaging in public fighting involving two or more people, and which disturbs the peace and causes fear
Therefore, if you witness someone committing a crime in your presence then you can be assured that you are within your rights to effect a citizen’s arrest. You can restrain the suspect while you wait for police or armed response to arrive, but ensure you call them immediately.
Obviously you need to look out for your own safety, but if you are brave enough to apprehend someone who could possibly be armed, you are permitted by law to do so.
If the suspect becomes aggressive you are also able to take reasonable measures to restrain him/her or protect yourself.
Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1997 allows for the use of force under the following circumstances:
1) If, while the private person attempts to arrest a suspect, the suspect resists or attempts to flee, despite it being clear that the person is trying to arrest him/her, and if it then becomes impossible to detain the suspect without the use of force, the arrestor may, in order to effect the arrest, use “reasonably necessary” force which is “proportional in the circumstances”, in order to arrest the suspect or prevent him/her from fleeing.
2) The use of “deadly force” – which the act defines as “force that is likely to cause serious bodily harm or death and includes, but is not limited to, shooting at a suspect with a firearm” – is permitted only if the suspect a) poses a threat of serious violence to the arrestor or any other person, or b) is suspected on “reasonable grounds” of having committed a crime involving the infliction or threat of infliction of serious bodily harm, and there is no other reasonably means of effecting the arrest, either at that moment, or at a later stage.
Although the act repeatedly specifies that a private person needs to “reasonably believe” that a crime is committed, it is advised that you are practically 100% certain that the crime was carried out or that it would have been carried out. You cannot arrest someone for something you merely think they may have done or think they may do. You need so be so confident that the crime was committed, or would have been committed, that you are willing to stand up in court if need be and justify your actions based on your firm belief.
There obviously will be clear cut cases of wrongdoing, such as if you see a suspect mugging or attacking someone. In such cases there is no need to second guess yourself, and if you are able to apprehend the suspect, then you have the right to do so.”