Friday, December 3, 2021

From Westgate Mall: an anti-robbery patrol akin to a catwalk sashay

How, one wonders, could armed police officers guarding a cash-in-transit truck against robbers be themselves robbed of their weapons? Tough question but what the writer witnessed during the early days of this operation in Gaborone strongly suggests that it was just a matter of time before armed robbers robbed both the police and the money they were supposed to be protecting – against robbers.

Right out of the gate, the writer will confess ignorance about precise details of how anti-robbery operations should be conducted but what happened last month at two shopping malls didn’t inspire any confidence.

In a highly unusual turn of events, armed robbers have started making away with huge sums of money during cash-in-transit robberies. The money is robbed off cash-in-transit trucks and the level of sophistication used by the robbers led some to suggest that the robbers might be rogue elements of theDirectorate of the Intelligence and Security Services (DISS). That DISS operatives might be behind the robberies shouldn’t be too surprising because the spy agency was formed to function no differently from a criminal organisation and did in fact function as one in its early days.  

Botswana security guards don’t carry guns but even they did as some of security companies are saying, they would be no match for highly trained DISS operatives – that is supposing they are the culprits. In response, security agencies are tightening up security for cash transfers, which is mostly in the morning from previous day’s takings. The writer had occasion to observe this operation at close quarters last month (September 15) at Westgate Mall along the Western Bypass.

Minutes after a marked cash truck had pulled up to make a pick-up at one of the offices, a paddy wagon also pulled up and parked not too far from the van. At this point, the cash-in-transit crew (being two security guards, one carrying a black security box) had disappeared into a back office to collect the money.

From the paddy wagon, two police officers, a Sergeant (the driver) and an Assistant Superintendent, alighted. Slung across the latter’s shoulders, muzzling pointing downwards, was an AK47 rifle. Where one expected the police officers to take up combat-ready position near the cash-in-transit truck, they instead strolled side by side in a westerly direction, along the aisle between a row of parked vehicles. Never once did they glance backwards and so didn’t see the two security guards come out with an obviously cash-loaded security box and proceed towards their truck. The officers were a good 50 or so metres away and one had not to be an expert to stare wide-eyed at the sight with whatif wonderment.

Around the time that the cash-in-transit truck pulled out, the officers had disappeared around a bend of the parked cars at the far end of the parking lot. Long seconds later, they reappeared in the parallel aisle walking back to their paddy wagon. One saw not security operatives in the midst of a life-and-death operation but something else. With the aisle forming a veritable catwalk and the multi-octave orchestra of Western Bypass traffic providing fashion-show-like background music, the officers were practically sashaying as civilians looked on with mild fear and awe at their display of firepower.

It turns out that a few minutes later, a paddy wagon was spotted at the nearby Molapo Crossing Mall – which is just a rocket launch away from Westgate. That was at precisely the same time that a cash-in-transit truck was collecting cash from some shops at the mall. According to an eyewitness account, the police officers (a Sergeant and an Assistant Superintendent) “sort of appeared” to be accompanying the truck. The former was driving and the latter toting an AK 47 and both sashayed around the mall as the cash-in-transit crew collected cash.

Circumstances of last Wednesday’s incident may be completely different but paired with what happened at Westgate and Molapo, there is a pertinent question to ask: can BPS handle the historic security challenge that it is confronted with? Another question is as pertinent: when police officers sashay up and down aisle-catwalks slinging rifles as fashion props, who besides ordinary people, is also watching and taking notes?

The current spate of armed robberies has put everybody involved in an unusually difficult position. Security companies are lobbying the government for the right to arm their guards with guns powerful enough to repel robbers. This seemingly reasonable request is itself fraught with its own set of problems. Firstly, it would increase the number of people in the country with access to guns and resultantly, increase gun crime. Secondly, one too many security companies underpay and hideously exploit their guards. This exploitation has quite considerable time depth. If these guards add new capability to their resumes – handling different types of weapons – and their level of occupational hazard goes up, they would have to be adequately compensated. As stated though, most security companies have a problem paying fair day’s wages for fair day’s work. Thirdly and as a result of the latter, some guards may use their newly acquired gun knowledge to turn to armed robbery in order to improve their personal living conditions. Some senior officers in the BPS share the latter viewpoint.

BPS (as its officers) also find itself in an unenviable position. In protecting the money of businesses targetted by robbers, BPS is itself losing huge sums of money on fuel expenditure for its vehicles that escort cash-in-transit trucks. Dedicating resources for this special service – which mostly benefits the wealthy – takes away scarce policing resources away from other members of the community, especially the poor. This happens in the middle of a global medical emergency that has forced the Service to cut its own expenditure. Robbers are after money and have never really considered the unarmed cash-in-transit crews to be any sort of obstacle.

At least when they are not themselves robbed of their guns, police officers who escort these crews are an obstacle and are viewed as such by robbers. A police officer says that government’s decision to use police escorts for cash-in-transit trucks has effectively “made us targets.” What makes the latter description even more valid is that some of the robbers are from South Africa where an encounter between robbers and police almost always leads to shoot-to-kill gun battles.

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