Moratorium on crime figures

Martin Schönteich thinks the government's decision not to release crime statistics will undermine public trust.

MAY THIS YEAR was the last month for which national crime statistics were released. In July minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete announced a moratorium on the release of crime statistics because of concerns about the validity and reliability of the statistics. According to Tshwete the moratorium will remain in force until the national commissioner of police, Jackie Selebi, is satisfied that the flaws in the systems have been sufficiently improved. Selebi's spokesperson has indicated that the national commissioner should be "in a position to review the decision in 12 months time".

Tshwete is no doubt correct when he says there are flaws in the system. Collecting crime statistics from almost 1,200 police stations around the country - some of which are without computers and staffed by barely literate officers - is bound to lead to errors. At one station, for example, incidents of pick-pocketing which occurred on taxis were recorded as cash-in-transit heists. The police have been aware of these problems for some time. Over the past few years some 500 stations, which cover 75 per cent of South Africa's crime, have appointed trained analysts devoted to recording and analysing crime statistics in their areas.

South Africa's official crime statistics are widely regarded as comprehensive and certainly as the most detailed and reliable of all countries on the African continent. Statistics on the number of crimes recorded by the South African Police Service at national level down to station level have been publicly available since 1994.

Oddly the moratorium comes at a time when the government seemed to be committed to greater openness. Barely two months before imposing the moratorium, speaking at the launch of a crime research resources centre, Tshwete commented: "Crime statistics typically attract extensive debate and argument. We as government are totally committed to transparent and constructive partnership with non-government and community based organisations. It is vital that we share information and knowledge in a way that improves the focus of crime prevention interventions and initiatives and helps build trust among the diverse partners essential to long-term safety and security."

Moreover at the beginning of the year parliament passed the Promotion of Access to Information Act which gives legislative teeth to the constitutional provision that everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state. Once promulgated this Act is likely to nullify Tshwete's moratorium.

If the country's crime statistics have been flawed for some time, and the system for collecting them is being improved, albeit slowly, why has the minister imposed a moratorium now? Could it be that the police leadership do not like what the statistics say - especially in light of the comment made by Selebi as the incoming police commissioner in November last year, that levels of serious crime will be down by the time he reports to parliament in April?

During 1999 levels of recorded crime rose at a faster rate than any other year since 1994. Violent crime increased by almost 10 per cent between 1998 and 1999, more than any other crime category. Moreover, measured on a per capita basis for the first five months of the year from 1994 onwards, crime levels are at their highest this year. During January-May 2000 some 2,300 crimes were recorded per 100,000 of the population, up from 2,190 in 1998 and 2,070 in 1994.

But crime statistics are only one measurement of police performance and a limited one at that. This is so for at least two reasons. First, crime reporting levels are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the number of crimes actually committed. Many crimes are not reported to the police with reporting levels varying from one crime type to the next. Theft of expensive and insured property is almost always reported to the police. By contrast reporting levels for inter-personal crimes, especially sexual offences, are much lower. The better the public perceives the police to be, and the more they trust the police, the greater the likelihood that they will report crimes to the police. Moreover, some crimes such as drunk driving and drug related offences rely almost exclusively on the police for their detection. High levels of recorded crime for such offences are a positive performance indicator for the police.

Second, many inter-personal crimes are committed in private homes among people who know each other. The police have little or no control over the commission of such offences. Even the best police service with patrols on every street corner cannot prevent a woman being raped or assaulted by her boyfriend in her bedroom. High recorded levels of such crimes should therefore not reflect badly on police performance.

By placing a blanket moratorium on the release of crime statistics, Tshwete is undermining the credibility of future statistics when they are again released through an improved collection system. More ominously, by his actions the minister has shown little regard for the constitutional right of citizens to have access to crime information that concerns them all. Governments, by withholding information from their citizens, foster mistrust between the rulers and the ruled. This is both dangerous and unnecessary in South Africa's case.

Martin Schönteich is a senior researcher at the
Institute for Security Studies.