Since 2001 official policy has been that crime statistics will only be released with the publication of the South African Police Service annual report in September. This means that the most current crime statistics in the public domain are already five months old when released in September each year. By July of the following year say these are 15 months out of date.
In a written reply to a question in Parliament last month Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula motivated for the policy on the basis that statistics for a period shorter than a year would be unsuitable for establishing 'valid and reliable crime tendencies' and that SAPS policy is in line with international norms.
Reasons for the policy also included that providing 'blow by blow' explanations of the incidence of crime placed demands on personnel who should rather be focused on tackling crime, that too much detailed information could assist criminals in planning their activities, and that annual statistics are adequate to uphold the right of citizens to receive information.
People involved in partnerships with the SAPS such as those involved in community police forums (CPFs) are provided with 'tactical information' but do not need crime statistics, Nqakula's response said, though the SAPS is well able to provide more frequent statistics as it provides the Minister with up to date reports on crime statistics on at least a quarterly basis.
In evaluating Nqakula's response one point of comparison with South Africa the Police Service of Northern Ireland which publishes six statistical reports a year reflecting a detailed breakdown of crime for each of the districts under its jurisdiction. The New York Police Department publishes weekly precinct by precinct crime statistics and many other major police departments in the US make crime statistics by command unit available on their websites, usually monthly or quarterly. The British Home Office releases a quarterly report on crime statistics from each of the 43 regional police services within England and Wales while the London Metropolitan Police provide monthly borough by borough crime data.
There are therefore many jurisdictions where crime statistics are made available more frequently, and more quickly, than is the case in South Africa and which obviously also do not share the view that detailed and timely crime statistics will assist criminals, or that the only stats which is meaningful is that presented on a year by year basis.
This therefore suggests that official parsimony with crime statistics is primarily about the political management of public anxieties and perceptions about crime and the difficulties faced by government and SAPS in this regard. Thus current policy reflects concerns that crime statistics, and their use by the media and political parties, were fuelling these anxieties, and with this, perceptions that government was failing to effectively respond to crime.
But current policy is not necessarily helping government to limit the political fallout related to crime and may in many other ways be counterproductive. The policy may assist in limiting the frequency of demands on government and the SAPS for political management of the crime situation but in so far as government has seen the control of crime statistics as a way of limiting public anxieties about crime this has not necessarily been successful. Fear of crime may have increased during at least some of the period during which the policy has been in place, along with suspicions that government is manipulating crime data.
More widely available crime statistics will not pacify public fears but this does not mean that these statistics should be suppressed. Instead political and police leadership should articulate more clearly what is being done to tackle the crime problem, and play a more overt role in building confidence that government is being open and is serious about dealing with crime.
During the past year the SAPS has also embarked upon a major restructuring exercise which involves closing down police Area offices and specialized units and which is supposed to devolve authority to station commissioners.
Since 1994 a fundamental underlying tenet of policing policy has also been the idea of community partnership with the police. Initially embodied in community police forums the policy has now been deepened by means of sector policing which includes provision for community partnerships by means of sector forums. Though there have been misgivings about the value of community police forums recent research suggests that sector policing in particular has the potential to serve as a vehicle for an effective community based style of policing.
Notwithstanding assurances by the SAPS that 'tactical information' is adequate for those involved in partnerships with the police, denying station commissioners the right to provide these structures with up to date crime statistics not only detracts from their authority but also undermines the ability of community members to engage with questions about crime in their area on a meaningful basis.
SAPS reluctance to provide more frequent crime statistics is in some ways understandable as the way in which crime statistics are used often provides fuel to public fear adding to the demands on the SAPS in terms of media and public relations. These are realities that the SAPS needs to come to terms with as the principle policing agency in a democratic South Africa.
But current official policy undermines the basic platform on which SAPS efforts to deal with crime are being built and contradicts the vision of an empowered citizenry which is foundational to South Africa's democracy.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in Business Day, 28 July 2006.