Fresh look at crime prob­lem

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Opinion - ANINE KRIEGLER

The re­lease of crime sta­tis­tics in South Africa al­ways trig­gers great angst among or­di­nary cit­i­zens and ob­fus­ca­tion on the part of the au­thor­i­ties. This year was no ex­cep­tion.

In its lat­est re­lease of crime sta­tis­tics, the South African Po­lice Ser­vice seems to have tried to down­play crime-rate in­creases (and ex­ag­ger­ate crimer­ate de­creases), by us­ing the wrong pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates.

The po­lice in­cor­rectly used the June 2018 pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates in their anal­y­sis of the 2017/18 crime rates. This is not the first time they have made this kind of bun­gle.

But their mo­ti­va­tion is clear. Ap­ply­ing the cor­rect pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates sug­gests that the coun­try saw the big­gest per capita an­nual mur­der rate in­crease since 1994.

Last year’s fig­ures sug­gested that the mur­der rate had sta­bilised. But these were un­founded, as the mur­der rate has now risen to 36 per 100,000.

The last time it was this high was in 2009. The in­crease is cause for se­ri­ous con­cern.

Even the new min­is­ter of po­lice, Bheki Cele, ex­pressed shock at the num­bers, de­scrib­ing South Africa as be­ing close to a “war zone”. He ad­mit­ted that the coun­try’s po­lice force “dropped the ball”.

A log­i­cal re­sponse might be that there is a need for more polic­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Cele: We have lost the UN norm of polic­ing, which says one po­lice­man to 220 cit­i­zens. One po­lice of­fi­cer is now look­ing at al­most dou­ble that.

But this is not the an­swer. A sen­si­ble re­sponse to South Africa’s ris­ing crime rates would be twofold: a prob­lem­solv­ing approach that would re­quire a close anal­y­sis of what’s caus­ing crime to rise in a given area.

Then they’d need to de­vise a plan that takes into ac­count all the con­trib­u­tory fac­tors – and in­volves ev­ery­one affected in ad­dress­ing it.

And, se­condly, the coun­try’s lead­ers must ad­dress in­equal­ity. South Africa is a highly un­equal so­ci­ety. It has one of the high­est gini-co-ef­fi­cients (a mea­sure of in­equal­ity) in the world. Re­search shows that in­equal­ity and crime go hand in hand.

Po­lice lead­ers re­ported that their staff num­bers had gone down by 10,000 since 2010.

They ar­gued that they had 62,000 fewer po­lice than were needed.

Po­lice agen­cies all over the world of­ten claim that to re­duce crime they need big­ger bud­gets and more of­fi­cers.

But the ev­i­dence that these two things au­to­mat­i­cally lead to more ef­fec­tive crime preven­tion is far from clear.

Take the is­sue of po­lice num­bers. Short-term and ex­treme spikes in po­lice num­bers (such as in re­sponse to ter­ror­ist threats) do seem to re­duce crime. But a re­view of a num­ber of stud­ies on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween polic­ing lev­els and crime rates sug­gested that the im­pact of more po­lice is gen­er­ally small.

Big­ger bud­gets also have mixed out­comes. This is be­cause, very of­ten, a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of spend­ing on po- lice is in­ef­fec­tual. What works best is a prob­lem-solv­ing approach.

This in­volves fo­cus­ing nar­rowly on un­der­stand­ing spe­cific crime prob­lems in spe­cific places, and us­ing not only po­lice but draw­ing on the knowl­edge and re­sources of all par­ties, in­clud­ing other gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

For ex­am­ple, par­tic­u­lar fac­tors might be con­tribut­ing to a spike in rob­beries in a par­tic­u­lar area. These could in­clude a large co­hort of bored young people in the com­mu­nity, paths that are fer­tile ground for at­tacks be­cause they are dark and over­grown, or unlit parks near a derelict build­ing.

More po­lice pa­trols wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be the best so­lu­tion.

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lems would need to be ad­dressed.

This might in­clude cre­at­ing a part­ner­ship be­tween prop­erty own­ers, the agen­cies in charge of parks and light­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion, schools and par­ents, and the com­mu­ni­ties that use the spa­ces.

There is a more fun­da­men­tal prob­lem that needs to be solved on a na­tional scale be­fore South Africa’s crime lev­els can be re­duced: in­equal­ity.

Re­search shows that in­equal­ity is ar­guably the sin­gle best pre­dic­tor of whether a coun­try will ex­pe­ri­ence high or low lev­els of crime and vi­o­lence.

In­equal­ity makes prop­erty crime more at­trac­tive and prof­itable, drives frus­tra­tion, hos­til­ity and hope­less­ness and un­der­mines trust, com­mu­nity en­gage­ment and the func­tion­ing of so­cial and in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures.

South Africa is one of the most un­equal coun­tries in the world.

Mur­der lev­els na­tion­ally have been at about this level or higher (above 30 per 100,000, which is con­sid­ered very high by global stan­dards) since at least the 1970s.

High lev­els of vi­o­lence are not a mat­ter of po­lice re­sources. They are a struc­tural fea­ture of this so­ci­ety.

Ad­dress­ing the key driv­ers of crime and vi­o­lence re­quires that South Africa builds a much larger so­cial part­ner­ship. It has no hope of be­com­ing a fun­da­men­tally less vi­o­lent coun­try un­til it be­comes a more equal one.

● Anine Kriegler is a Re­searcher and Doc­toral Can­di­date in Crim­i­nol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cape Town

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