How could South Africa’s crime statistics be better used in the public’s interest?

Crime figures and information collected by the police could yield many more benefits than is currently the case.

When South African Minister of Police Bheki Cele and National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) Khela Sitole released the country’s official crime statistics on 11 September 2018, many people focussed on the question: has crime gone up or down? Of course, this question wasn’t easily answered, as statistics for about 28 crime categories were released, some of which show an increase and others a decrease.

Apart from murder which is the most reliable statistic, most of the other categories of crime such as robberies, rape and assault can go up or down for reasons other than changing trends in the amount of crime. For example, if people start losing faith in the police, fewer victims report crime and it could look as though crime is decreasing when this not the case. The opposite is also true. If people’s perceptions of the police start improving, more people report crime and it could look as if crime levels are rising while they may actually be declining.

We now know that during the financial year of 2017/18, the numbers of murders increased by 6,9% to 20 336, or an additional 1 320 cases when compared to the previous year. This was the single biggest annual increase since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

crime stats SA

INFREQUENCY OF STATS

What the statistics certainly don’t tell us is whether people in South Africa are facing any currently emerging threats in their communities, homes or businesses. This is because the crime statistics are already out of date: the figures released by the police dealt with the last financial year, which ended six months previously on 31 March 2018.

The absence of regularly available crime statistics and other information severely undermines the ability of communities, business, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government departments to identify and appropriately respond to emerging crime threats. Moreover, the lack of data and other information means that when crime prevention initiatives are developed and implemented, their impact cannot be assessed regularly in order to amend them if necessary.

THE COLOMBIAN EXAMPLE

The Colombian city of Bogotá provides a good example of how the regular monthly release of crime data can become a fundamental building block in the reduction of serious violent crime. Between 1994 and 2004 Bogota managed to reduce its murder rate by 71% without hiring additional police officials. Its murder rate in 1994 was 13% higher than that of South Africa, but by 2010 it was almost 32% lower than that of South Africa at 23 murders per 100 000 people compared to 34 per 100 000 in South Africa.

At the start of his campaign to reduce violent crime in Bogotá the mayor, Antanas Mockus, established a task team consisting of police, prosecutors, various government departments and civil society organisations, including universities. The purpose of the task team was to analyse and track the police crime statistics along with all other relevant data on deaths and injuries. Information such as the nature, cause, victim and location of serious violent crimes were scrutinised by people with different skills and expertise to ensure that the information that was used was considered as reliable by various sectors. This data was also released to the public on a monthly basis so that local communities could have access to updated information on the emerging crime challenges they were facing.

This allowed local communities to tailor crime prevention initiatives to their specific crime challenges and regularly assess the extent to which they were successful or not. The availability of this data allowed for different localities to experiment with different interventions, many of which did not require police involvement.

SHARE THE LOAD

For example, a campaign that proved to have a significantly positive impact on violent crime was aimed at promoting responsible alcohol consumption among young people. Another was the use of public parks and spaces to provide free training to communities on how to resolve and intervene in conflict before it turned violent.

The success of these community-based crime-prevention initiatives reduced the burden on the police, who were left to focus on more serious crimes and repeat violent offenders. The arrest and incarceration rates of serious criminals and repeat violent offenders increased dramatically and the numbers of murders and robberies dropped notably.

The regular sharing and collective analysis of available statistics and information on crime resulted in improved partnerships among the police, other government agencies, civil society organisations and communities. Not only did it reduce violent crime, it also improved other social challenges. For example, traffic fatalities also dropped by 50%.

ALL ACCESS

For far too long in South Africa, crime statistics have been seen as information that belongs to the police, which they reluctantly share with the public and other government departments from time to time. This is partly because the crime statistics are incorrectly used as a measure of police performance. If they go up, it is assumed that the police are doing a poor job and if they go down the opposite is claimed.

Both assumptions are generally wrong. The reality is that these statistics are but one indication of a public safety challenge that affects all people in South Africa. As such, statistics should be publicly available as and when they are required by anyone wishing to better understand the nature of crime in their communities and how to effectively respond to it.

A big challenge we face is the long-held and prevailing belief that the SAPS is the sole organisation responsible for tackling crime. However, the SAPS highlights in its own annual reports that it cannot address the factors that contribute to crime, such as child neglect, alcohol abuse, poor urban planning and high levels of unemployment and inequality. It therefore regularly calls on all South Africans to play a role in reducing crime. However, because of a political decision by the national cabinet, it is not allowed to release the very information that would highlight the current and emerging crime threats that would galvanise people into the action required.

The SAPS has a treasure trove of information on crime occurring in each community and can easily provide up-to-date crime statistics and information to the public. In fact, South Africa is fortunate in that the SAPS has a well-developed system for gathering and collating statistics on crime across the country. Many hundreds of millions of rand have been spent over the years developing the Crime Administration System (CAS) used by the SAPS to provide reports on crime statistics. This system receives information from all of the 1 144 police stations across the country.

Each time a person goes to a police station and reports a crime, a docket is opened and the information about the crime is uploaded onto this system. Every 24 hours, all the criminal cases opened are updated on the CAS. This means that the police always have access to detailed and updated information on reported crimes. The information is also geographically tagged, so it is possible for the police to track exactly where crimes are taking place and how this pattern changes over time. For example, they also know which types of crime are most likely to take place, and at what times of the day and who or what is being targeted.

The SAPS also knows a fair amount about the modus operandi used in different crime types and the profiles of the likely perpetrators and victims. It is for this reason that it is able to identify crime ‘hot spots’, which it uses to plan policing operations and direct targeted patrols.

COLLECTIVE APPROACH

The SAPS is not the only organisation that has information on crime. Statistics South Africa conducts an annual Victims of Crime Survey that asks people from a representative sample of about 30 000 households about their experiences of crime. Hospitals and local level emergency services have information on people who have needed medical attention because of assault and other violent crimes. Many organisations have undertaken detailed studies on crimes such as murder and rape. However, much of this information is not easy to obtain, shared or utilised to develop specific crime reduction strategies and interventions.

There is no need to adopt a new approach to the releasing of national crime statistics annually. It is one important measure of the crime trends. What does need to change however, is that there needs to be greater sharing and collective analysis of the information held by the SAPS and other state and civil society organisations.

From the part of the SAPS it could easily share local-level crime statistics for every police precinct each month. It would not be onerous for each police station to simply print out a table on the first day of the month that reflects the main crime categories for the previous month as compared to the same month the previous year. Emerging hot-spots for various types of crimes such as street robberies, house or business burglaries, car-theft, etc. occurring in the precinct could also be indicated on a map.

This information could be placed in the client service centre at each police station and made available on the SAPS website for the public to access. In this way, more people would be better informed about the specific local-level crime challenges they are facing and would therefore be in a better position to take appropriate action. It has long been established that, to be effective, crime reduction initiatives have to target specific crimes, at particular places and engage those most likely to perpetrate the crime or fall victim to it.

The police have already acknowledged that they alone cannot reduce crime. It is now time for a new approach, one that makes use of all the expertise, wisdom and skill that South Africa has to offer. Hopefully, it will be recognised that the vision of an active and participatory citizenry as found in the National Development Plan can only be realised if the various government and non-state organisations share important and useful information with the public on a regular basis.

If such an approach is taken with the crime statistics, it has the potential to contribute to a society in which far more people are able to take action to make their communities safer.

Written by: Gareth Newham, Head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, Institute for Security Studies

Article courtesy of Carte Blanche