Cape Town advances digitally-driven law enforcement

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 31 Aug 2023
Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis sits with a law enforcement officer in one of the cars fitted with the in-vehicle camera solution.
Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis sits with a law enforcement officer in one of the cars fitted with the in-vehicle camera solution.

Some 800 law enforcement officers in Cape Town will be kitted out with body-worn cameras (bodycams), as the city’s tech-driven fight against crime gets into gear.

A further 290 in-vehicle cameras with automated number plate recognition (ANPR) technology − commonly known as dashcams − will be installed this financial year, says the city.

This comes as the significance of body cameras for law enforcement officers has been heightened in recent weeks, with Members of Parliament (MPs) calling for their prioritisation.

The MPs’ calls were motivated by the escalation in assault incidents involving police officers, with the latest high-profile incident involving deputy president Paul Mashatile’s protection unit.

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis, when he was inaugurated in 2021, stated that he wanted technology to feature more in law enforcement crime-prevention efforts. 

Popularly used by police and other law enforcement organisations across the globe, a bodycam is a wearable audio, video, or photographic recording system.

For the Western Cape capital, these devices form part of its R860 million safety technology investment over the next three years, which will include CCTV surveillance cameras, aerial surveillance, drones and gunshot detection tech.

In April, the city’s safety and security directorate indicated plans were under way to procure the additional crime-fighting digital tools.

On Wednesday, Hill-Lewis, joined by alderman JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, trialled the new body and in-vehicle cameras during a demonstration in Goodwood.

“In the next couple of years, this technology will be standard across our safety services, to make Cape Town safer. The dashcams are equipped with ANPR technology, so that officers will be instantly alerted to wanted vehicles and outstanding warrants,” says Hill-Lewis.

“We’ve already seen the ability of the ANPR dashcams piloted in our new highway patrol unit launched last year. Based on these learnings, we’re now rolling out cutting-edge in-vehicle cameras across our vehicles. Together with body-worn cameras, this will massively enhance situational awareness and the quality of evidence gathering to ensure more convictions.

“This also increases trust and accountability in the municipal police and law enforcement, as interactions with the public will now always be recorded. This is important to us. There is global evidence which shows a steep drop in attacks on law enforcement officers after the introduction of these cameras.”

During the ANPR pilot, the technology helped in identifying stolen vehicles, those involved in criminal activities and motorists with outstanding warrants, adds Smith.

“The full rollout of an in-vehicle camera solution will now enable officers to record evidence of incidents as they happen, while also streaming live video to the control rooms for enhanced situational awareness of critical incidents.

“Digital evidence is vital in the prosecution of offenders, and we are expecting the body-worn cameras on officers to provide crucial footage that can be used in court, ensuring a higher rate of successful convictions.

“Bodycams will also enhance officer safety by increasing situational awareness and serving as a deterrent to potential perpetrators of assault on officers. The cameras will also act as a safeguard for the public and city staff, particularly in situations where claims are made against officers, helping to maintain transparency and accountability thanks to independent footage that can be viewed in court.”

According to Smith, the city is learning about best practices from international experts through a series of webinars and in-person workshops.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police, Thames Valley Police, the Bavarian Police, Fairfax County Police and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have all provided expertise to assist the city, he notes.

On the radar?

While there are limited signs of progress in the use of technology devices − such as body and dash cameras, drones and CCTV − at national level, the same can’t be said at the provincial level.

The Gauteng province kicked-off the installation of facial recognition CCTV cameras in Diepsloot in May. Gauteng premier Panyaza Lesufi commented via X (formerly Twitter) that the province’s project of installing “high-quality” CCTVs is “shaping up nicely”.

“We are determined to fight crime, corruption and lawlessness. A better and safer Gauteng is rising,” read the premier’s tweet, alongside a picture of a control centre.

Similarly, in 2021, the Department of Transport indicated plans to introduce bodycams to be used by traffic officers, as it was readying its “Easter Road Safety” campaign that year.

At the time, the transport department touted the bodycams as “useful tools in dealing with the high levels of bribery incidents by providing a factual account of events”.

In a statement, Andrew Whitfield, Democratic Alliance shadow minister of police, said the South African Police Service (SAPS) announced its intention to rollout body cameras in 2019.

In addition, police minister Bheki Cele said in May that “body-worn cameras are being prioritised”.

However, to date, not a single body-worn camera has been procured or deployed by the SAPS since they were first announced, Whitfield pointed out.

During Parliament’s Police Portfolio Committee meeting earlier this month, the SAPS committed to implementing bodycams, but no timelines were provided, according to Whitfield.