Why SA would benefit from regular crime stats

Gareth Newham
For the past four years, total crime levels have stabilised at high levels while certain worrying crimes such as house and business robberies have generally increased. This is despite tens of thousands of additional police officials being hired into the South African Police Service (SAPS).  It’s time to do things differently if we want to reduce crime further.  A simple but highly effective start would be to release the local crime statistics monthly.  International experience reveals that there will no negative consequences for doing so, but potentially much to gain in the form of more safety conscious and active communities.

Simply put, crime statistics are created by categorising and adding up each of the criminal cases recorded by the police. South Africa is fortunate to have a relatively well-developed system for gathering statistics on crime across the entire country.

Currently, the crime statistics are released once a year by the Minister of Police at a public media briefing.  This usually occurs during the second half of September and generates substantial public and therefore media interest. It is the only time that the government releases a comprehensive set of statistical information that provides us with a sense of the crime challenge facing our country.

While the Minister of Police will talk about the national crime trends, it is far more useful for people to look at the crime taking place in the precincts within which they live and work. To make this easier for people to access, the Institute for Security Studies has developed the Crime Information and Analysis Hub which can be accessed free of charge here. Simply choose the crime category you are interested in and type your address into the maps search box. The map will zoom into where you live and it will be possible to see the trend of that crime type in your area over the past 10 years. Zoom out and you can compare your precinct with your neighbours.

Currently however, the biggest challenge facing the public is that, at the time of their release, the crime statistics are already six months out of date. This is because the crime statistics that are presented are for the previous financial year (i.e. from 1 April 2012 to 31 March 2013). Therefore, as interesting as the crime statistics are for understanding historical trends, they are not useful for assisting communities or interested parties (e.g. small businesses) in assessing the current or emerging crime threats they may be facing.

It does not have to be this way. The SAPS crime analysis system (CAS) allows each police station to print out a monthly table consisting of the statistics for the 29 most important crime categories relevant to that precinct. It is colour coded so that at a glance the reader can see which crimes are going up (coloured red), which are staying the same (coloured blue) and which are going down (coloured green) when compared with the same month the previous year.

The crime statistics for each police precinct could be made available on the SAPS website or put up on a notice board in the Client Service Centre of each police station on the first day of every month. The benefits of releasing crime statistics in this way could be substantial.  

For example, if people in a community were concerned that house robberies, burglaries or car hijackings were going up, they could immediately check at the local police station to see if this was indeed the case. If so, they could then get together and implement a local crime prevention initiative targeting the specific category of crime that was emerging as a threat. This could be, for example, establishing a neighbourhood watch or coming together to hire street guards.  

Each month communities would be in a position to know if their initiative was working or not. The local police station would benefit as the information would promote more collective action to reduce crime and would contribute towards building local level police community partnerships.

That this has not happened is somewhat puzzling. Excuses have been given by those who resist such an initiative, that releasing the crime statistics in this way will somehow have negative consequences for communities. However, this has not been the case anywhere in the world where crime statistics are released to the public regularly.

Crime statistics for instance are released monthly in both the cities of Bogota in Columbia and throughout the United Kingdom with no ill effect.  In fact, in 1994 Bogota used to have a murder rate that was about 20% higher than South Africa’s. Ten years later in 2004, Bogota’s murder rate was less than half of South Africa’s.  In New York, crime statistics are released on a weekly basis and it’s one of the safest cities in the United States of America.

Crime statistics were released on a quarterly basis in South Africa until around 1999 when the decision was taken to release out of date data once a year. Most likely, it was because the increase in crime between 1996 and 2003 made our politicians uncomfortable and it was felt that public concerns would be easier to manage this way. However, crime has come down by around 25% since then, but over the past few years is starting to stabilise. It is high time that we use international best practice release information that can form a solid basis from which to empower and promote local level safety initiatives.   

After all, crime statistics should not be seen as a state secret, but valuable information to which the public is entitled. We can only benefit if there was more transparency in this regard.

Gareth Newham is the Head of the Governance, Crime and Justice Division at the Institute for Security Studies.