It was very quiet. The dark was broken now and then by squares of golden light behind curtains, or bright white light from wall lanterns or the big round balls Henleyites seem to love so much. Our headlights picked up a hare crouched in the long grass, a big eye and long ears in silhouette. The crackle of the radio was intrusive.
“Listen for the dogs,” the Man told me. “If they are restless, something is not right.” I’m not so sure about that; Henley dogs seem to do a lot of barking about nothing, but I listened. Our own dogs lay silently in the back of the bakkie. We were alone in the night.
In the distance, a green light reminded me why we were there.
I knew the Man would want to sign up with the CPF, the Community Policing Forum. He always gets involved in security and policing. I remember a thief bounding over our garden wall (a high wall – isn’t adrenalin wonderful?), hotly pursued by a young constable. The Man supplied back-up and handcuffs. After that, the police were constantly at our gate asking to borrow them!
So, when we arrived in Henley, we signed up with the CPF and got our call sign. This week we got the radio, but information was scarce. When he discovered a mass patrol was scheduled, we went to find out for ourselves. I was very nervous, not sure what to expect. In the four months I’ve been in Henley, I’d got the impression that the CPF were Rambos – gung-ho, wannabe tough, fast-driving vigilantes.
After my experiences on the cutting edge of a major newspaper and life in a genuinely tough inner-city suburb, I wanted no part of that.
I’ve been trapped in a crowd while angry men pounded on my car; I’ve tried to squish myself and my unborn baby under the car dashboard to avoid crossfire; I’ve crouched by my office window while bullets flew; I’ve seen a man lying dead in front of my house, the road blocked by police vehicles, SWAT team and ambulances. Been there, done that, don’t need any more T-shirts.
There were blue lights at Saloojee’s, police cars, people milling around in fluorescent jackets with police-style caps. I was relieved to see several women, an elderly couple, a dad and his young son, a family with children, as well as the camo-clad toughs I was expecting.
Friendly greetings put me more at ease. The Man pointed out the CPF chairman and the SAPS colonel, other policemen and the Henley tactical team. They all looked very Rambo in their bullet-proof vests. It seems they were off to hit a suspect house up near the railway line – drugs, illegal immigrants – do I want to know? The patrollers’ job was to drive through the block they were assigned, showing their green lights.
Right, can we go home now?
“Fall in,” we were told. “On parade.” The Man did so with enthusiasm and professional snap. Some things you obviously don’t forget. I shuffled in beside him. I was not happy. We hadn’t planned on patrolling. I knew the Man could handle any situation likely to occur, but I failed even at paintball. This was not my scene.
“We don’t have to confront anyone,” the Man assured me. “We are the eyes and ears on the perimeter. If we see something out of place, we call for back-up. The police are in Henley tonight. It’s their job to follow up.”
In other words, Rambo go home. Gung-ho types stand down or join the tactical team. “They are properly equipped and trained,” he explained.
“Squad Cars … we prowl the empty streets by night…” He went very slowly along roads that looked unfamiliar in the dark. We saw bunnies and hares, more bunnies. A cat, no dogs. A pair of lovers walking hand in hand under the full moon. They waved. We waved.
Seeing a woman sitting alone in a car outside a driveway gate in an unlit road, we stopped to ask if she was all right. When we said we were CPF, she told us to get lost – very explicitly. Huh? Would she have reacted like that if we were simply concerned neighbours? Isn’t that what the CPF is supposed to be?
I can only report on what I saw, which was bunnies and more bunnies. We started to give them names – Loopy loop, Big Ears, Bright Eyes… There was a call for back-up in the road we were in, but not in our sector. We answered, but the suspect car was surrounded by green lights. The situation was obviously under control.
We didn’t have a green light, so our suspiciously prowling car was stopped a couple of times by those who did. Our crackling radio calmed their fears. They reported a drunken driver, a car that needed to be jump-started. No gun shots, no sign of the tactical team, no-one scaling walls or digging up cables.
Frankly, if I knew there was a mass patrol – and I’m sure the word got around – I’d also stay at home.
At midnight we gathered at Vasco’s for dismissal. Did anything happen? No idea? Not to us. Did it help having eyes and ears patrolling the streets? It probably did. “It makes it safer for everyone,” our oddly assorted fellow patrollers told us. They were proud to be of service.
Will I do it again? Probably. There was something special about being out in the night, in the dark and the silence, knowing that the people behind those lighted windows were a little safer because we were there. – Jennifer de Klerk
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