Police drones cannot come soon enough

It was the sound of gunfire, dynamite and screams that woke residents of Esther Park this morning.

The middle density suburb about a kilometre or so to the South of Kempton Park Central Business District in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, South Africa, was readying itself for the day on a relatively uneventful, quiet morning whose only threat was a rising cold wind that promised a bitingly cold day ahead.

All this was suddenly broken by bursts of firearms and an explosion that shook buildings 200 metres away. Smoke billowed from a burning car at the intersection where a cacophony of confusion reigned; by the time the shrilly sound of police sirens filled the air, the guns had long stopped barking at the corner of Parkland Drive and Camwood Street.

Another cash-in-transit vehicle had been hit.

Witness accounts narrate the story of a well-orchestrated heist, in which about twenty suspected robbers swooped down on a truck that had only one guard besides the driver, and no other car in sight to back it up. They had big and powerful Japanese and German getaway cars, and used an old model Mercedes to execute their plan. The cash-in-transit vehicle was just leaving the intersection when the Mercedes rammed into its right corner, forcing the driver to stop.

It does sound like a movie script. But that is exactly how it happened.

With the driver and his companion still reeling and wondering what was happening, armed men were swarming around their armoured truck, shooting at it, and ordering everybody out. Witnesses say they had semi-automatic weapons, and soon had one of the guards shrieking in panic.

They dragged passengers out of the truck before they blew its rear door to reveal the undisclosed amounts of cash inside. The whole operation took about five minutes. They left the two guards helpless by the roadside – with the driver badly beaten and bleeding from the mouth – and made good their escape in four cars that went in different directions.

Residents said this was the second such incident to happen at exactly the same spot, after another heist in 2015.

Confirming the incident, police spokesperson for Sebenza SAPS, Sergeant Sharon Tsotsotso said they were now on the hunt for the suspects, who will be charged with crimes that include attempted murder, robbery and robbery of firearms and ammunition.

In the aftermath, a lot of questions will obviously be asked about the wisdom of trusting a single truck loaded with a lot of cash in the hands of only two people, with no back up in sight whatsoever. But one has to wonder how far the robbers would have fled if the local police and the security company involved had invested in drone technology to survey the area and the truck as it was passing that dangerous area.

The drone policing that the South African Police Service advertised a few weeks ago cannot come soon enough.

Only last week, we reported the story of a suspected drug dealer who thought he had evaded police by escaping through the back window of his apartment in Derbyshire, United Kingdom – only for his movements to be tracked by a police drone brought to the scene by the Derbyshire Drone Unit for exactly such scenario. The dealer skipped over neighbouring backyard fences, crossed streets, and ran around for a haven; but the eye in the sky kept trained on him, and in no time, he had police officers coming at him from all directions, and had to give himself up.

Cash-in-Transit heist are so common in South Africa they now have their own abbreviation; if anybody reads CIT anywhere, they know it refers to a cash-in-transit robbery. By February 2020, 35 CITs had taken place, already threatening to dwarf the grim figures of 2018, where 179 cash trucks were robbed.

Sadly, security companies, and police authorities seem to be dragging their feet in trying drone technology to track robbers, even with evidence of success elsewhere. Imagine a situation where the security company had – as a preventive measure – made prior reconnaissance of the road to be travelled by their truck, marking spots where robbers might take the chance to pounce, and setting up drone surveillance until their car got to safer territory again?

We wrote last week how the SAPS was mooting the idea of drone policing, because drones can be used to safely peek into spaces that humans may endanger themselves by venturing blindly into. The stretch of Parkland Drive where the robbery happened today is narrow and dangerous – with light traffic after everybody has arrived at work, the road is a perfect place for potential robberies. A few drone flights and a good drone mapping of the area might have raised the red flags for the security company.

Is this an indictment on the drone services companies in the country that tout the superiority of drone technology in aerial surveillance? The companies sell their drone services to include surveillance of areas to keep them safe; perhaps the question to ask is why they have not convinced cash transporting companies on the possibilities of incorporating drones in helping keep the coast clear, or give accurate accounts of what is happening on the ground?

Or better yet, we can ask why companies transporting large amounts of cash have not explored the route of drones as a reconnaisance and surveillance technology yet. Could it be because of the current regulations, that prohibit the flying of drones near public roads?  

But helicopters do fly in such places, and when the they did finally arrive at the crime scene this morning – more than twenty minutes after the fact – the robbers had already been swallowed by traffic in the beautiful roads of South Africa. A drone in place might have kept tabs with the fleeing cars, and updated back up services and police authorities about where they might have been headed. As the eye in the sky, the drone might not physically stop the robbers, but it will surely give recovery services ample information to literally pursue the right leads.

Alas, it turned out to be one more CIT statistic in the police crime register. The robbers scattered in all directions, to plunder their latest loot and plan their next targets.

“They are like cancer cells,” Dr Hennie Lochner, a senior lecturer in Forensic and Criminal Investigation Science at the University of South Africa told a local paper recently. “If you do not cut them all off, they will spread again.”

Maybe it is time to give drones a chance.

1 Comment

  • Thomas Schommler Reply

    August 28, 2020 at 11:15

    Drones are tools. Law Enforcement need such tools as soon as possible. But they dont need toys, they need drones controlled by LTE / 4G. Sending live video feed to involved people. Maybe they need some Droneports around the city.
    All this technology already exists and is ready for use in the security sector

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