EASTERN Cape police have until tomorrow to settle a R1-million towing bill – or face having crucial evidence needed from vehicles used in crimes lost or destroyed. This comes amid threats by several Nelson Mandela Bay breakdown companies to stop towing the vehicles used in crimes from crime scenes.
Now crime experts fear that vital evidence – including DNA or fingerprints – might be contaminated and have a "negative impact on criminal investigations against serious offenders".
As a result dangerous criminals – robbers and hijackers included – may never be prosecuted because of a lack of evidence.
Policing expert and former police detective Prof Rudolph Zinn said failing to secure evidence could not only have a "detrimental effect" on the arrest of suspects, but also drain police resources.
"The practical implication is massive. A vehicle recovered at a crime scene is meant to be towed to the forensic lab or police pound depending on the evidence that is needed. If the vehicle cannot be towed, police are compelled to post officers at the scene to ensure all crime scenes remain intact and nothing is tampered with." Zinn said evidence in the vehicle would also deteriorate over time. "Evidence has to be preserved and this cannot happen at scenes where the vehicle is standing on the side of the road," he said.
"This actually happened to me when I was in the police so I know the implications this could have. If the vehicle is not towed to a secure facility, evidence will be lost and criminals could walk free."
Seven companies – who rotate on a weekly basis – are contracted to tow away police and suspects' vehicles. But for the past three months, they have not been paid an accumulative R1-million.
An industry insider, who asked not to be named, said the vehicles they took from scenes were usually stolen, hijacked or used in crimes.
"All these cars are either towed to the police forensic unit where they are scanned for evidence to assist with identifying the suspects or taken to the police pound where they are later handed back to the owner," he said.
Gearworld Towing owner Marius Rautenbach – who is representing the seven companies – said they met with police last week and it was agreed they would give them time to pay up.
"Some companies are owed about R300000. We have had meetings with the colonel in charge at Mount Road police station as well as the colonel from provincial police," he said.
"They told us that their regulations changed in August and because of this they are unable to sign for the release of money. We told them in the meeting that we are giving them until Wednesday to finalise this or no vehicles will be towed."
Former police general and criminologist at the Institute of Security Studies, Dr Johan Burger, said while preliminary forensic evidence was gathered at the scene, in-depth examinations had to be conducted at forensic labs. "[It] requires certain tools that are only available at the labs."
Provincial police spokesman Colonel Sibongile Soci denied claims that the budget had been exhausted and refused to give further comment on why payment had not been made.
"It is not true that the allocated budget has been exhausted and the process of paying service providers continues," she said.
"Community members are assured that service delivery will not be hampered as the relationships with service providers will be sustained."