Does hiring more police officers result in less crime? Or does more crime result in more police officers?
The reasoning behind the first statement has guided South African policy makers for the past decade. The consequence of our policy choice has been the second. With falling crime rates following years of mass police recruitment, the government is likely to believe that its approach has been successful.
While policing can have an impact on some crimes, international experiences of mass police recruitment have typically resulted in unintended yet significant outcomes. To meet ambitious personnel targets, police management are more likely than not to lower recruitment, vetting and training standards. Moreover, police command and control systems take strain as front line managers are required to supervise larger number of inexperienced and inadequately trained officials.
Common consequences include increasing levels of police misconduct, corruption and brutality. With the South African Minister of Police currently facing over R 11 billion in civil claims, the policy of mass recruitment has proven to be a costly policy choice in more ways than one.
With crime starting to increase substantially in 1998, a fearful South African public increasingly started to complain about weaknesses in the police service. A common complaint at the time was that police were not visible or did not come when called. By the change of the century it was therefore a logical policy option to hire more police officials given that public funds were available. The thinking was that increased police visibility would deter criminals and reduce crime levels. Police budget allocations therefore increased significantly, at more than 12% per year on average for over a decade. A vast bulk of the budget, 85%, was allocated towards paying the salaries of the growing numbers of recruits. By 2011, the South African Police Service (SAPS) consisted of 197 930 personnel. This represented a 50% growth of police personnel since 2002/03, an increase of 65 620 posts. South Africa now has police officer to population ratio of 1:323, well under the UN recommendation of 1:400.
On the face of it, the mass recruitment policy worked. Following total crime levels peaking in 2002/03, they have dropped by 24% in 2010/11. However, a closer look at the crime figures suggests that the issue is more complex than it first appears. In fact, it is not clear to what extent, if any, increases in police personnel have contributed to reductions in crime. For example, murder in South Africa has more than halved since 1994, falling from 66.9 murders per 100 000 people to 31.9 per 100 000 in 2011. This is the only crime category to have shown such a consistent downward trend. A trend that has no correlation with police personnel figures. In 1994, the new SAPS consisted of 140 000 personnel, with at least 40 000 recruits coming from the police forces of the apartheid created "bantustans." At that time the SAPS wage bill was unaffordable and a decision was taken to place a moratorium on further police recruitment. Over the next three years or so, SAPS personnel numbers fell to around 120 000. Interestingly, murder declined by 10% in this period despite 20 000 fewer police personnel being on duty.
Although the police will argue that murders are a consequence of local social dynamics and there is little they can do to affect murder rates, crimes attributed to 'professional criminals' or repeat offenders such as robberies are very susceptible to good policing. By carefully gathering evidence at crime scenes and establishing intelligence networks, police can identify arrest and jail the perpetrators of these crimes those that support them. However, in the five-year period between 2004/05 and 2009/2010, during which time an already large police personnel contingent grew by a further 30%, residential and business robberies increased by 51% and 295%. It was clear that increasing police personnel figures was having no positive impact on these and other crimes. Total crime rates also increased by 4% between 2007/08 and 2009/2010, largely driven up by property related and commercial crimes, despite ongoing police personnel increases.
At the same time the police were frequently in the media for the wrong reasons. Reports of police brutality, corruption and misconduct were almost a daily feature in the news. In 2010, National Police Commissioner General Bheki Cele conceded to an increasingly frustrated Parliament Portfolio Committee on Police that the problem was, "We have not been big on quality, we have been big on quantity. People have been thrown in by chasing quantity rather than quality." While it may have been easy to blame the "troops", the real reason for the predicament was weak leadership and poor management. Those tasked with leading the police had not thought through the consequences and had not strengthened recruitment and management systems. Fortunately, the 2010/2011 SAPS Annual Report sought to re-orientate the focus of police leadership by emphasising that "improvement of the SAPS resource capacity is dependent on the professionalism, discipline, and integrity of every member of the SAPS".
The 2012 budget vote document of the SAPS has signalled a further policy about-turn in relation to personnel figures. For the past few years the SAPS stated that by 2014/15 they were aiming to achieve a target of 204 000 personnel. However, the 2011/2012 budget vote document released by the National Treasury last week reveals that there is now a planned reduction in SAPS personnel to 188 490.
Interestingly, in addition to reducing total police personnel numbers, big shifts are planned for where these personnel will be deployed and the type of police work they will do. Currently, 56% of all personnel work in Visible Policing division (undertaking patrols, roadblocks and other high visibility operations, etc.) and 19% work in the Detective Services division (investigating crime, gathering forensic evidence, etc.) However this functional profile of the SAPS is the process of changing substantially.
Over the five year period starting in 2008/09 and ending in 2014/15, the number of detectives in the SAPS is set to increase by 24% to 38 152 personnel. This reflects the realisation amongst policy makers that simply having large number of visible police officials does not automatically reduce crime or improve service delivery. Rather, any deterrence factor that the police may have is by increasing the risk to criminals that they will be identified, convicted and sent to prison.
The police budget is expected to grow a further 6.6% on average in the medium term until 2014/2015. This is in line with the current inflation rate and therefore means that there will no longer enjoy real increases in their budget for the foreseeable future. The SAPS will therefore need to become more efficient rather than rely on spending more money to achieve their objectives. Current plans reflect a focus on building more police stations, improving the detective services, strengthening forensic capacity, and improved overall skills and working conditions. However, the key challenge will be to strengthen police management capacity and internal accountability systems of the SAPS. If this is achieved, South Africans can look towards better policing in the future. If not then we will continue to experience problems with police brutality and corruption but committed by better-trained and knowledgeable police officers.
Gareth Newham and Lizette Lancaster are head and manager respectively of the Crime and Justice Hub of the ISS.