Three men walk down a quiet Cape Town neighbourhood road carrying a stolen flat-screen television, seemingly unaware their movements are being scrutinised.
A resident peeping out of the window logs a call to the Western Cape crime channel on a cellphone app and it is not long before another user down the road responds with an updated location.
Meanwhile, a controller has logged a call from the television owner and notifies the police of their location.
This, says Cape Town controller Justin Kumlehn, is the typical scenario of how the app works.
Kumlehn, 27, has worked as a volunteer for the past five months. “It’s for the community, by the community,” he says. “It’s about getting the community to work together so criminals see they can’t just get away with something.
“That is the whole basis for the channel. We don’t support vigilantism and we don’t want to take the place of emergency services.”
The live channel, which has 1 169 trusted users on the Zello mobile app, works like a two-way radio. Anyone can download the app and register. Users are assigned the ‘trusted’ status when they pass a background check done to ensure no criminal elements infiltrate the network. There are over 100 channels one can join.
The initiative started in April last year when the Wierdabrug community policing forum set up the “Centurion Concerned Citizens” group. The Western Cape channel was launched in September and there are now channels in almost every province and numerous areas across the country.
While the channel was not officially affiliated with the South African Police Service, quite a few police officers and emergency medical service officials were members and assisted with dispatching services where possible. In other cases, controllers phoned emergency numbers on behalf of users.
Housebreakings and various types of road accidents were the most commonly reported incidents.
“At times it becomes very frustrating, as I am sure many other controllers can tell you, but there are rewarding times when you have success stories. It makes everything all well,” Kumlehn says.
The Brooklyn resident is an executive member of his neighbourhood watch and a level three first-aider. He volunteers his time, as do the nine other controllers at their sponsored control room in Edgemead. Many have medical training.
A transport company sponsors their travelling, but they pay for their own phone calls and data costs.
“We would like to keep it that way as this is a community improvement initiative. We are trying to recruit more controllers. Some of us pull very long hours and there hasn’t been a time when one of us didn’t respond.”
The channel also uses a dedicated vehicle as a mobile control room for instances when neighbourhood watches need assistance. It is also equipped with a full medical kit.
The former hospitality industry worker has had his share of success while on duty. One instance involved sending police to check out an abandoned beaten-up vehicle. It turned out the vehicle was stolen and was using registration numbers from another stolen vehicle.
At the weekend, he received a call from emergency workers who were using the R300 to get to a scene when they saw a vehicle crossing lanes into oncoming traffic.
“They turned around and followed the vehicle with their lights on. They got the vehicle pulled off and handed over the scene to us and the neighbourhood watch.”
The traffic police then took over and left with the driver, as well as the vehicle. “It is very gratifying that you know you have done something.” — News24