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Do South African police arrests reduce crime?

21st February 2013

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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Over the past decade, the South African Police Service (SAPS) increased its arrest rate by 48%. This seems laudable, especially when one considers that there has been a 23% drop in the overall priority crime rate for the same period. It therefore seems easy to make the case that increased police operations and arrests have caused the decrease in serious crime. Interestingly, however, this trend has changed notably. Over the past three years, the number of arrests increased substantially by 18,5% while the overall crime rate stabilised (showing a marginal 1,7% decrease). During the 2011/12 financial year, the police reported to parliament that they had made their highest arrest tally ever, with 1,6 million arrests - an increase of 11% compared to the previous year. However, during this year total crime increased by 0,7%. One therefore needs to question whether arresting people is the answer to reducing crime in South Africa.

The Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, seems to think that it does, which is why he claimed substantial successes stemming from Operation Duty Calls. The operation started on 15 October 2012 and ended on 31 January 2013, during which time the police conducted 3 614 roadblocks, searching 1 477 901 persons and 501 373 vehicles. The Minister stated that the operation was a success partly because the police arrested 67 707 suspects for what are considered ‘priority’ crimes that range from murder to shoplifting.


While these figures sound impressive, they pale into insignificance when compared to the overall 777 140 priority crime arrests the police made last year. Interestingly, this amount represented less than half of the total arrests made. An additional 836 114 arrests (52% of the total number) were for ‘other’ crimes classified as being less serious than shoplifting. These arrests were for petty crimes such as loitering, urinating or drinking in public, and being in the country illegally. While the police and the public typically celebrate these figures as an indicator of good police work, we may need to rethink this.

Internationally, policing experts have realised that the link between what the police do and changes in crime rates is not that clear cut. According to renowned policing expert Lawrence Sherman, who has undertaken large-scale analysis of research into the impact of policing on crime for the United States government, ‘police can prevent robbery, disorder, gun violence, drunk driving and domestic violence, but only by using certain methods under certain conditions’ (see the report to the US Congress, Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn`t, What`s Promising, He explains that the extent to which any law enforcement agency can have an impact on crime levels depends on ‘how well they are focused on specific objectives, tasks, places, times and people. Most of all, it may depend upon putting police where serious crime is concentrated, at the times it is most likely to occur’.


Importantly, making arrests is not necessarily the best method for police to prevent or reduce crime. International studies have found that while large-scale arrests for petty crimes may decrease crime rates in the short term, this strategy can increase the crime rate in the long term. There are a number of reasons for this. Sherman argues that being arrested by the police for a petty crime can ‘permanently lower police legitimacy, both for the arrested person and their social network of family and friends’. This is because being arrested is usually a traumatic experience for most people. Too often police officers treat arrestees harshly in an effort to ‘show them who’s boss’ and to punish them, as very few of these arrests make it to the court and those arrested feel victimised over a petty misdemeanour.

Studies show that those who have been arrested are likely to become more defiant towards law enforcement authorities. These studies have also found that most types of arrests for petty crime do not act as deterrents to individuals, especially if they are unemployed and feel marginalised. Instead, these arrests can lead to increased disorder and criminality. After decades of evidence-based research Sherman concluded that: ‘Modest but consistent scientific evidence supports the hypothesis that the less respectful police are towards suspects and citizens generally, the less people will comply with the law. Changing police “style” may thus be as important as focusing police “substance”. Making both the style and substance of police practices more “legitimate” in the eyes of the public, particularly high-risk juveniles, may be one of the most effective long-term police strategies for crime prevention.’

Looking at the bigger picture, the police may be reaching a point where they are doing considerable harm to community relationships. Less than half the population trust the police and last year’s 1,6 million arrests must adversely affect a substantial proportion of both the adult and juvenile population of the country. Furthermore, many of these arrests are illegal and are accompanied by abuses, as is evidenced by the substantial increases in civil claims against the police for wrongful arrests over the past few years. In the 2011/12 financial year, the budget for civil actions against the police was R14,84 billion, or 26% of the total annual police budget. This is double the amount of R7,5 billion in civil claims the police faced in 2009/10. The Minister noted in parliament that a significant portion of this budget is allocated to civil claims for wrongful arrests.

It is therefore important that large arrest figures are not assumed to be indicators of police success. To assess whether a police operation is successful or not, monthly breakdowns of the crime statistics for the areas where the operation took place are needed. In the absence of this data, an independent assessment is not possible. Ideally, the police should be working closely with research organisations to regularly assess the impact of operations against specific crime categories in both the short and the long term. This is entirely possible given the data that is currently collected by the SAPS and other organisations. The detailed police budget for the next financial year will be presented to parliament in March 2013. However, without independent assessments of police performance, parliamentarians and the public will not know whether we are getting value for the well over R60 billion per year allocated to our police service.

Written by Lizette Lancaster, Manager of the Crime and Justice Hub, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria


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