Corruption and fleet operations: Can you protect yourself?

Every year, there are literally thousands of hijackings on South African (SA) roads.  There are also as many as over a million crashes. Theft affects almost every road transporter in Africa at some time or another.

 All these unpredictable, unpreventable, and uncontrollable (for the better part) losses compound to create a risk environment that causes sleepless nights, endless headaches and yes – losses.  Huge losses.

But this is not another article on those risk elements.  Those topics have been covered in other articles and by other authors.  The issues of crash and crime risk – albeit a very high risk – has become more of an accepted norm than an exception, these days.  People accept those as the “cost of operations” already and everyone knows that a trend is developing crime is on the rise; deal with it.

Luckily, as far as collisions are concerned, we can develop and introduce an array of mitigation technologies and processes:  Everything from in-vehicle video-telemetry recorder, to driver behaviour analysis, tracking systems, improved vehicles and more advanced driver training all stand together as a united front; designed to manage and reduce the risks associated with transport.

As far as theft is concerned, you can always build higher fences, add CCTV cameras, increase patrols, and supplement your security forces.  Better access control, access cards, biometric access control and a host of other security measures can all but eliminate theft from premises and depots.

Luckily for us the SA police service and METRO police units are introducing ever more “collision units” to attempt to better investigate and prosecute road crime offenders and now even a new National Traffic Unit has been established by the National Department of Transport’s Road Traffic Management Corporation.  New recruitment drives by the SA police, some shifts in management and new rank structures and even a recall of experienced police officers and reservists are all included in the national strategy of the SA Police Services.  All to fight crime.  To reduce it.  To Stop it, if ever possible.

They have our back.  Our government is coming to the party like never before.  They are here to protect us.  They are our trusted angels in blue and whatever colour they choose to wear to be invisible when operating speed trap instruments.  They are there for us.

Or are they?

To use an animal analogy – if you want to protect your property, you get a dog.  A big one.  Loud bark, big jaws, eager to attack. Sure, the family poodle is cute, but it will not deter would-be robbers, thieves, and murderers.  At best it will make a noise.  No. You want something big, strong, fit, capable, intimidating and even deadly.  After all – it’s your life you are protecting.  You train it to attack on command, to patrol regularly and to literally sleep with one eye open and one ear up.  You feel safe.  But what if this dog turns on you?  Who protects you from the animal that you trained.  The one you are supposed to trust.  How do you defend yourself?

Analogies aside, a worrying new trend is rearing its ugly despicable head in SA.  While it is currently more prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal, like any other crime trend ranging from hijackings to farm murders and even xenophobia and public unrest and protecting – it will spread.  Like a cancer, it will proliferate onto the alleys, streets, and highways of our emotionally and physically ailing society.  It will eat away at the last semblance of hope and a promise of safety we all hang onto – our trusted law enforcement officers.

This new trend comes in a form so disturbing that it warranted this long introduction and careful consideration.  This is a new trend that every risk manager of SA needs to be aware of.  Whether you operate a large or small operation, whether you are an owner driver or a fleet owner – read on and take very careful note.  The tides are shifting.  Your risk profile is about to explode into a new era of frustration.

We are talking about highway robberies, committed by law enforcement officers.  Robberies conducted in plain view of the public.  Robberies that involve real law enforcement officers (more often that you will ever want to believe).  They don’t use guns.  They don’t hurt anyone physically.  They don’t ever have to explain themselves and they get away with it as easily as they do with not wearing a full uniform while on duty.  We are talking about “highway cellular robberies”.  No, not robberies of cell phones.

Robberies over cell phones

See, the “scam” works like this:  The truck is stopped by uniformed enforcement officers in full uniform and with marked vehicles.  They will approach the driver and appear as official and natural as any other officer on any other road.  They will ask the driver for his driving license and “check his truck”.  They will then find something wrong with it.  Often something obscure but illegal:  Reflective lines are too high or too low, not long enough, not covering enough of the length of the vehicle.   They might even refer to reflective lines not being continuous.  Perhaps a taillight that does not work properly or a chevron that is poorly maintained.  Expired license disks and operator cards and bald tyres or oil leaks are like bunnies to wolves.  Then they pounce!

They ask the driver to call his manager, supervisor or owner.  They make the driver use his own cell phone. Not theirs.  They then speak to the owner or manager and inform them that they have stopped their truck and that they now “have a problem”.   The unsuspecting victim will be approached in a tone and with neurolinguistics that are so typical of law enforcement that they won’t even realise they’re about to fall victim to a crime.

Because the following references are based on an actual report, names and locations have been edited out completely.  The reporter is concerned about victimisation or specific targeting – if the officers involved were ever to detect that efforts are afoot to locate, expose and prosecute them.  The following is a transcript of an actual conversation, with some details removed as well:

“Sir.  This is traffic officer (surname) and we have just pulled over this vehicle of yours in a roadblock here on the (road).  Unfortunately, we are having a problem.  This truck of yours, driven by (driver) is now not roadworthy.  The problem is that we have to take it into custody now because we cannot allow it to travel further.”

Of course, up to this point, everything sounds and feels just fine.  The truck is unroadworthy, and the officers are just doing their jobs.  Or are they?  When the manger inquired as to the nature of the problem and why the vehicle would be taken into custody, where it will be kept and what the officer’s name and force number was, things went the wrong way…

“Look here.  I am not going to give you my name and what … I am saying that if you can pay me, maybe one thousand or something, we can let this guy go.  We do not want to keep him, and we know that there is stuff on the back that must be delivered.  If you are not going to co-operate then we just take the truck, and we will even charge this driver.  You will not get your truck until this case is finished, ok?”

Now the manager realises there is a bigger issue at stake.  He is at risk of the driver and the truck being detained or worse and all it will take to “make this go away” is to pay this cop the R1000.  It’s so simple really, as the conversation develops, the voice demands payment via virtually untraceable means.  This is the “robbery” part, being perpetrated over the cell phone, during the night.

In this case, the manager alerted the company directors, delayed the officers, called a local police station and after a long period and several calls, demands and arguments, they got hold of a senior police officer (a station commander) to go to the scene.  No money was eventually paid, and the truck was actually completely in order.  Nothing was wrong with it.

But others are not so lucky.  Amounts ranging from as little as R500 and as high as R5 000 have been paid – and it happens a lot.  More often than by chance.  Most people are so surprised, so taken aback and so intimidated that they pay. Few – if any – dare resist or refuse to pay, out of fear that those “official threats” become a reality.  Any business that has ever had any dealings with this kind of matter will know that trucks can be held for up to weeks or even months if police officers are unco-operative.  If truck drivers are arrested and vehicles actually impounded, the costs soar:  Attorneys, lost operations, bail for the driver, managers driving around trying to resolve the matter and even further bribes all add to the costs and misery.

Sometimes, the company is exploited in this way: at other times, the driver directly.  Another case involved claims that the reflective lines down the side of the truck were not continuous, as required by law.  In the case a quick payment of R100 by the driver, directly to the officer, resolved the “problem”.  But is this even true?  In this case, the Road Traffic Act does not refer to the continuous or broken design of the reflective tape at all; it merely explains when and on what vehicles such reflective striping must be attached.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that this is a good example of an “obscure law” that no one could easily test or dispute.

But what can be done?  Surely, paying the bribe is cheaper and easier than getting into the fight?  Surely there are fights that are better not to get into?  Surely, as a transport operator, anyone would understand that paying a small amount and being able to resume operations immediately is “more economically viable” than resisting and submitting to the process that could see operations halted for days or weeks (for that vehicle), the driver arrested and jailed, legal costs and possible product loss to spoilage?

Yes. True.  But is this not the same as giving money to street children?  IF you keep “feeding the beast” won’t it grow up?  Won’t that dog you hired to protect your property turn on you if you keep feeding it raw meat?  Are you sure that you want to turn the family dog into a hunting wolf?

The problem with bribery is complex and not easily manipulated or ended.  You surely know that it has become so rife and commonplace that even soccer moms are “in on it” by now.  The cop stops you; he finds something wrong, explains that “we have a problem” and you interpret it to mean “we need money”.  You pass over a couple of bucks and there “was a misunderstanding” and everything is now resolved.  Move along.  Nothing to see here…

But what if you feel this is wrong – as you should? What if you believe that corruption, bribery and criminality should be stopped?  What steps can you take?  How can you prevent this from happening or fight back when it does?  How do you stand up to the school bully that wants to take your lunch every day?  There are a couple of suggestions you could consider – some more practical than others but all legal and within your rights.

The first thing you need to know is that bullies rely on two things:  Fear and fear.  They want you to be scared.  They will typically corner you when you are most vulnerable.  They are masters at manipulating opportunity.  When it comes to the kind of corruption referred to here, the opportunity is also manipulated.  Drivers will be exploited more when they are alone, in remote areas, late at night or in areas that are crime hotspots.  Since you cannot take another road, you need to prepare for the inevitable; you need to act and think as if this type of crime is going to happen and develop prevention and mitigation strategies immediately.

It starts with technology.

Vehicle tracking, video/telemetry recorders, audio recorders, panic buttons and the like.  If you are aware of where your vehicle is at any time, trying to react to a situation is vastly more possible.  If you are supported by a reputable tracking company with adequate resources, you can deploy them immediately to the scene.  If your driver is properly trained (go and search YouTube for “Evocatus Security Services” and watch the Hijacking Awareness video the author produced) you might have a chance.  But the driver must act proactively.

Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:

Drivers must be trained, and they must learn that ANY unscheduled stop is a possible risk.  Drivers need to share in the risk awareness mindset of the company.  They need to be specifically instructed that – no matter the reason; even if they come across an official roadblock with hundreds of police vehicles present – they need to use their PANIC BUTTON.  This will alert the tracking company of the event, initiate efforts to verify that all is in order and give the driver the power of knowledge that something is happening behind the scenes.  All he has to do now is not answer his phone and suspicions will be raised.

Vehicle managers and controllers need to understand what a panic alarm means and how to react to it.

Calling the driver and asking, “are you okay?” is hardly adequate.  Under duress, the driver is hardly going to tell you that he is being held hostage or captive and being intimidated.  Rather develop code words or duress signals that the driver and the controller will know about.  This places him in a position to report duress without being detected and with the knowledge that help is being summoned.

The driver also needs to be trained to be more vigilant.  The author offers training courses in the identification of legitimate law enforcement officers.

Things like mismatching uniforms (one wearing sneakers and the other polished shoes), the wrong kinds of blue lights, the absence of branding, firearms shoved into the wait belts and not holsters and even the absence of a name tag can all be preliminary indicators of possible criminal activity.

The driver should be trained to specifically look for things like name tags (it’s an old “police trick” for officers to swap name tags to cause confusion in court later), police station names on vehicles, unit numbers (those numbers used to designate patrol units) and the absence of radio chatter.

Legitimate police will often leave their personal radios on, and all manner of police chatter can be heard – especially in busy areas.  If some or all of these aspects are missing or detected, the driver should know he is the potential victim of a crime.

Know the law.

The problem with these kinds of issues is that these officers rely on their superiority.

They have the power.  The first thing they rely on is that “the law is on their side”.  They know the law better than you.  And you can “fake it till you make it”.  As long as what they say the problem is sounds official enough and reasonable enough, your uncertainty will place you at risk.

By studying the Road Traffic Act more carefully, you will be more aware of the actual rules.  Getting a copy of the Roadworthy Manual for Goods Vehicles and Buses from Foresight Publications is an absolute must for all commercial operators.  The manual covers every aspect of roadworthiness in great detail and presents it in a way that is very easy to follow and reference.

Remove their power.

This is the hardest part of this type of interaction, fighting back.  Victims fall prey to bullies not because bullies are always stronger but because they fear the consequences of fighting back.

The fact is that the corrupt law enforcement official will only enjoy his little effort as long as it is fun – as long as he is in charge.

As far as neurolinguistics go, things like apologising, asking for forgiveness, begging for a “way out” or admitting fault are all signals of the perfect victim.  You need to turn the tables.  The following is a good example of how this can be done without antagonising the “officer”:

“Officer, I want to thank you for your vigilance and for doing your job.  You are clearly a highly experienced officer, and we certainly need more officers like you.  I fully understand that we are subject to the laws of SA and my vehicle, and my driver should never be above those laws.  While it is very inconvenient for me and the driver, I fully understand and respect that you must do your duty and that it is not within your power to overlook something like this.  Please proceed with the action of arresting the driver and impounding my vehicle, as required by law.

I will call our attorney immediately to make arrangement for bail and contact 10111 to report your actions so that we can both have a record of this.

Fortunately, our calls are also all recorded, so I do not want you to be exposed for helping me out if you are not allowed to.”  You can then add, as relevant: “If you must issue a fine or discontinue the vehicle, I also understand and thank you for that.  I will send a replacement driver and a vehicle to transfer the goods immediately along =with our standby mechanic to attend to the repairs.

Thank you so much.   Where are you taking my driver and the truck, sir?”

Yes.  You are going to say: “And what if that doesn’t work?”  This would be reasonable.

But at least if this doesn’t work, you will know that you are dealing with a seasoned criminal who is capable of making demands directly and not merely an officer trying to exploit an opportunity that is too good to pass up.

The next thing you can do is to put poison in that raw meat your trained dog is now lusting after, with saliva flowing from its sharp teeth and gob-filled mouth.  Mark the money.

If you are going to fall prey to these kinds of attacks, make money available to the driver.  Marked money.

There are two ways of creating “hot money”:  You can either add an invisible ink stamp or mark to the money (this might be illegal in any event, but it is better than nothing) or you can take the notes – perhaps ten-hundred-rand notes – and photocopy them or photograph them with your cell phone.

This way, if the “crime” is over, you can report it and prove the involvement of the officers, if you act quickly enough.

There is no better way to expose this kind of crime than to be able to prove that you know the serial numbers of the money in the officer’s wallet.

While they will often use techniques like demanding virtually untraceable transfer methods (like the so-called “Zama-Zama”), cash is king, and they will love the novelty of not having to take the risk of an electronic record of any kind.

By giving the driver the ability to “spike” their efforts with marked or tracked money, you can open the door to a better tomorrow – one where the criminals are brought to book.

In every case, you will need to move quickly, decisively, and confidently, if you are going to react to all.  Perhaps rather paying up and carrying on as if nothing happened is adequate for you or easier to do.

Perhaps this is cheaper and better than the alternative.  Perhaps you do not believe in the legal system anymore and do not want to waste time in court, perhaps for years, only to see the criminal walk or get a fine that is much less than the bribe he demanded.  Perhaps you will bury your head in the sand and hope that someone else will “do something about it”.

You would certainly be forgiven for making these kinds of decision, because “everyone does it”.

But where does it end?  When?  Who is the “they” that must do something about it?  Why can it not be you?  Why can you not stand firm and receive training on how to manage these kinds of situations?

While this one article cannot possible cover all the types of crimes and methods you can use to prevent or react to these kinds of attacks, it serves as a wake-up call.

This is happening now.  It will only get worse.  The less you do, the quicker this trend will grow.  The hungrier the dog will get.

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