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A catch-22 for Mzansi motorists

Written by on May 13, 2024

Several motorists across South Africa have fallen victim to marauding gangs of criminals purporting to be police officers, who stop the unsuspecting drivers and rob them.

Commonly referred to as “blue-light gangs”, the brazen criminals confront drivers by effecting roadblocks or instruct drivers to stop while purporting to be members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) or municipal police.

At times, the criminals drive vehicles with insignia of the police, or use flashing blue lights and in other incidents the robbers wear police uniform or display police appointment cards.

Last month, three alleged criminals were shot dead on a Sunday night during an exchange of gunfire with police officers. At the time, Brigadier Brenda Muridili, Gauteng police spokesperson said the three were part of the infamous blue-light criminal gangs terrorising motorists on the infamous N3, between Villiers and Heidelberg.

IOL spoke to renowned criminologist, Prof Kholofelo Rakubu, who highlighted that motorists across South Africa have become sitting ducks because as events unfold, drivers cannot distinguish between bona fide police officers and the impostors.

“Is it a catch-22 situation for motorists in South Africa? A definite yes! There is no law that protects motorists from this crime and it is highly impossible to recognise a bogus or imposter officer from a legitimate office since they both utilise same tools of trades — uniform and blue lights amongst other,” she said.

“Motorists have always been advised to only stop at the nearest garage, however, not all deserted roads have garages nearby. This advise exposes motorist to victimisation.”

Rakubu said the impersonators use law enforcement-related tools — that include cars and motorcycles, emergency car lights which are red and blue, clothing items including fake uniforms, police vests and belts, counterfeit badges, weapons such as guns or batons, handcuffs, phones and radios, speakers, and horns — to mislead their people.

“Offenders either use one of these tools or different combinations thereof to develop their character. In most cases, the offenders use emergency lights — blue-lights placed on their cars and they pull over random individuals,” said Rakubu.

“Some of these impersonators wore a police uniform or a t-shirt with the word ‘police’ on it. The more prepared offenders pulled out a fake badge and a weapon to further intimidate their victims.”

Rakubu is the Head of Department at Tshwane University of Technology’s recently merged Department of Law, Safety and Security Management.

She said it was common law in South Africa that motorists comply when stopped by police officers anywhere, any time of the day, even at deserted roads and secluded areas.

“Therefore, impersonators use legal behaviour to carry out illegal acts when impersonating officers to rob motorists,” Rakubu said.

“As a result, this form of social identity theft has tremendously reduced citizens’ trust in law enforcement, continues to ruin the reputation of official agencies, and undermines legitimate police work,” she said.

“Thus, even though impersonation crimes typically target civilians, they also harm police organisations and police personnel.”

She said this scourge of crime has festered because of factors including lack of proper monitoring tools to monitor dismissed police officers; theft and sale of police kits particularly uniform, belts, badges; corruption within the law enforcement agencies; and criminal actions of disgruntled police officers and soldiers.

On the other hand, outspoken anti-crime activist and investigative television personality Yusuf Abramjee told IOL at times, the criminals within the blue-light gangs are rogue members of the police.

“The problem of blue-light gangs on the prowl has continued for some time. We are seeing more and more incidents where fake cops, sometimes even real cops are involved in robberies and hijackings,” said Abramjee who presents investigative anti-crime show, Crime Watch on eTV and eNCA.

“I posted a video of a traffic officer in north of Pretoria this week with his motorcycle pulling off a truck and then the hijackers arrive and take the driver, hold him hostage and take the truck,” he said.

“This is one of many incidents where either police or metro police officials are involved in truck hijackings and other crimes which is a cause for concern.”

He said although police have made some breakthroughs in arresting some culprits and recovering some uniforms and firearms, the crime still continues.

“It appears that a number of small or copycat gangs are on the prowl,” said Abramjee.

“I would not be surprised if some of these gangs are using or are being abated by real police officers. The police have made a number of seizures and sometimes we often see cloned police vehicles being used. Some of these vehicles have been seized and some arrests have been made,” he said.

“The big question is – where do they get the blue-lights and uniforms. On uniforms, clearly they get them from genuine cops, which is a real concern. Blue-lights are sometimes being openly bought at flea markets and China towns and the police really need to clamp down on that.”

As advise to motorists, Abramjee said when signalled to stop by people purporting to be police officers, motorists should put on their hazard lights, slow down and get to the side of the road and communicate that they are going to stop at the nearest police station or filling station.

“Make hand signs that they should follow you (to a safe place),” he said.

“People do not feel safe on the roads and that is why sometimes even when real cops stop you, people get very anxious and nervous because we have seen in some cases where people were kidnapped for ransom after being stopped by people purporting to be genuine cops. The blue-light gangs are very dangerous.”

Last year, IOL reported that two members of the Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD) and a third man, believed to be their accomplice, were arrested and charged for truck hijacking on the R21 highway in Gauteng.

At the time, spokesperson for the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department (EMPD), Lieutenant Colonel Kelebogile Thepa said the three are members of a truck hijacking syndicate operating on the busy road.

Trouble started for the TMPD officers, in their police uniform, when they were spotted along the R21 in Ekurhuleni by alert EMPD officers.

The TMPD officers were travelling in a stolen, grey BMW 3 series vehicle, which was now fitted with blue police lights.

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