When South African Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa and National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) Riah Phiyega released the country's official crime statistics on 19 September 2013, the attention of most people was focussed on the question: 'Has crime gone up or down?' Of course, this question won't easily be answered, as statistics for about 30 crime categories were released, some of which show an increase and others a decrease.
What the statistics certainly don't tell us is whether South Africans are facing any emerging threats on the streets or in their homes and businesses. This is because the crime statistics are already out of date: the figures released by the police dealt with the 2012/13 financial year, which ended six months previously (i.e. the period 1 April 2012 to 31 March 2013).
The absence of regularly available crime statistics 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 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 city of Bogotá provides a good example of how the regular monthly release of crime statistics 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 crime statistics and other relevant data on deaths and injuries. The 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 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.
One campaign that had a significantly positive impact on violent crime was aimed at promoting responsible alcohol consumption among young people. The success of these community-based crime prevention initiatives reduced the burden on the police, who were left to focus on repeat violent offenders. As a result the arrest and incarceration rates of serious criminals and repeat violent offenders increased dramatically.
This approach also improved the 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%.
In South Africa, crime statistics are seen as information that belongs to the police, which they reluctantly share with the public and other government departments from time to time. The reality, however, is that these statistics are an indication of a public safety challenge that affects all South Africans and as such should be publicly available as required.
The unwillingness of the police to work more openly and closely with different stakeholders is reflected in the way that its senior managers undertake their planning.
Year after year, the SAPS develops its own annual performance plans to tackle crime with no meaningful input from the vast wealth of experience available from other government departments, civil society organisations, the private sector or community-based structures. This reflects 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 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.
To be clear, the SAPS 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 tens 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 is linked into nearly all the 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 electronic system. Every 24 hours, all the criminal cases opened across about 1 130 police stations 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.
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.
There is no need to change the approach to releasing national crime statistics annually. What needs to change however is that the SAPS should 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 each month that reflects the main crime categories for the previous month as compared to the same month the previous year. This table could be placed in the client service centre in an easily accessible place and the information could also be made available on the SAPS website.
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 government shares 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.
- Gareth Newham, Head, Governance Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria