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Release of South African Crime Statistics Highlights Policy Contradictions

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Release of South African Crime Statistics Highlights Policy Contradictions

22nd September 2010

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

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There was a strange contradiction during the release of South Africa's national crime statistics on the 9th of September this year. The National Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa spoke at the press conference of the importance of open and transparent engagement between the government and the people of South Africa when it comes to sharing progress on tackling crime. Yet, when asked if there was any chance to consider releasing crime statistics more often, he responded that the Cabinet had made up its mind not to. He argued that because the police are using the statistics, there was no benefit to be had to release them to the public more often. This seemed out of character given the refreshing approach that the Minister has taken to partnerships more generally.


The recent police civilian oversight legislation presented to parliament provides a key example of an attempt to do things differently. Nevertheless, the unwillingness of government to share what should be easily accessible public information reflects perhaps one of the biggest challenges to developing the types of partnerships, required if we are to achieve the kind of crime reduction that we all desire.

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Releasing crime statistics only once a year is not very helpful in terms of understanding and responding to the country's crime challenge. It undermines our ability to really understand the crime challenges we face and develop the best solutions possible. If we only use annual statistics to try and arrive at an understanding of crime, we can arrive at rather dismal conclusions. For example, in the six years between 2004 and 2010, the types of violent organised crimes that can be reduced through strategic and intelligence-led policing, such as house and business robberies, increased by 100% and 295% respectively. This occurred in the same period during which the budget of the South African Police Service (SAPS) increased by almost 132% from R22.7 billion to R52.6 billion. Much of that increase went into hiring over 60 000 additional police personnel.


The crimes that the police admit they have the least ability to reduce, often referred to as ‘social fabric crimes,' have on the other hand notably decreased. Over the past six years murder decreased by 15%, attempted murder by 42% and overall assault by 26%. In South Africa, as is the case in many other countries, the bulk of these crimes take place between people who know each other in private settings and are often fuelled by alcohol abuse. Changes in social dynamics are more likely to have a significant influence on the rate of these crimes than policing can.

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Reducing communication on crime to annual statistics allows us to arrive at the conclusion that the police are not having much success against crime. Indeed, most opinion polls demonstrate that the public have relatively low trust in the police compared to other government agencies. If we are change to this situation, we are going to have to change the relationship between the public and police when it comes to developing strategies to reduce crime. Successful strategies for reducing interpersonal violence tend to rely on the participation of various government departments, civil-society, community based and private organisations working collectively to identify and address the social causes that increase the risk of these crimes.


The Columbian city of Bogota provides a good example of the success of a multi-pronged approach in a resource-constrained context that did not rely on increasing the role of law enforcement. Between 1994 and 2004 Bogota managed to reduce its murder rate by 71% without hiring additional police officials. Their murder rate in 1994 was 13% higher than South Africa's. Today their murder rate is almost 32% lower than ours 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 Bogota, the Mayor Antanas Mockus established an inter-sectoral task team consisting of police, prosecutors, various government departments and civil society organisations, including universities, to analyse and track the crime statistics and other relevant data on deaths and injuries. This data was released monthly on a public website so that local communities could have access to updated information on the crime challenges they were facing. This allowed local communities to tailor crime prevention initiatives to their specific crimes and to regularly assess their progress. The availability of this data allowed for different localities to experiment with different interventions, many of which did not require police involvement. One example that proved to have a significant positive impact on violent crime was aimed at promoting responsible alcohol consumption. The police were left to focus on repeat violent offenders and arrest rates of serious criminals increased dramatically.


This approach improved the partnership between government agencies, including the police, civil society organisations and communities. Not only did this approach work to reduce violent crime but it also worked to improve other social challenges. For example traffic fatalities also dropped by 50%.


While the specific initiatives undertaken in Bogota may not be directly applicable to South Africa, the principle of their approach is relevant and could be applied here. In South Africa we continue to view crime prevention as primarily a police responsibility. Although government policy recognises the importance of community participation in reducing crime, the approach taken so far is not one of an equal partnership. Communities are seen as entities to be mobilised in a limited number of ways such as to establish street committees, join community policing forums or report crime to the police. Little is said about ‘social crime prevention' or the specific contributions that civil society or private organisations can make in developing policy to improve community safety.


Year after year, the South African Police Service's (SAPS) plans to tackle crime and transform the organisation are developed internally with no meaningful input from the vast wealth of experience that other government departments, organisations in civil society and private sector, or community-based structures are able to provide. This reflects the long held organisational belief that the SAPS is the sole organisation responsible for tackling crime. This mind set is clearly typified by the way in which the crime statistics are used and released.


During 2004, the Cabinet set the police target of reducing the national violent crime rate by between 7% and 10% per annum. This ignored the reality that police cannot control the rate of many types of crime. Most police officers understood this but had little choice but to try and comply. Massive pressure was brought to bear on the police to achieve the target and this led to the manipulation of statistics at station level.


The crime statistics remain a politically sensitive issue rather than being viewed simply as information to which the public is regularly entitled. The consequence is that the only comprehensive measure of the crime challenge facing South Africans at national, provincial or local levels are provided only once a year, usually in September when they are already six months out of date. The crime figures released earlier this month therefore tell us what was happening during the period 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010. Communities currently have to rely on limited and incomplete information about the specific crime challenges in their precincts. This severely constrains their ability to develop appropriate crime prevention initiatives and to regularly assess the extent to which these are having the desired impact.


The police have already acknowledged that they cannot reduce crime alone. 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.


Making the latest crime statistics available on a notice board at each police station and on the SAPS website on a monthly basis would be a good place to start. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that doing this will undermine the fight against crime. In fact, the opposite is more likely. Bogota is one example but there are others. New York publicly releases crime statistics for each of its policing precincts on a weekly basis and it is rated as one of the safest cities in the United States.


As important as the regular release of the crime statistics may be to developing specific approaches to particular crimes in local areas, it is clearly not enough. Many good proposals were contained in previous policies such as the White Paper on Safety and Security 1999 to 2004. It called for a National Crime Prevention Centre that would involve researchers, academics and anyone with the necessary skills and insights to share and analyse information on crime. The proposed centre would also develop appropriate strategies based on national and international best practice to reduce crime in problem areas and make police public partnerships a reality.


The key message that we should take from these crime statistics is that it is time for a new approach if we are to see meaningful change in our crime rate.

 

Written by: Gareth Newham, Head of the Crime and Justice Programme, ISS, Pretoria

 

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