How useful are police crime stats? Here's what we can expect from this year's figures
Crime will be a much-discussed topic on Thursday when the South African Police Service (SAPS) briefs the Portfolio Committee on Police (PCOP) on the 2018/2019 annual crime statistics.
Police Minister General Bheki Cele is expected to brief the nation on the crime picture for the period of April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019.
These statistics are fairly accurate, crime analysts say, as they are based on every crime reported at every police station in South Africa.
That said, experts warn that this much-hyped annual event is merely "a show" and that not much will change if the statistics are not properly categorised and priority crimes effectively policed.
According to Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), there are at least 30 different categories of crime. The statistics' accuracy depends on whether those crimes are being reported.
"The most reliable statistics are those for murder, vehicle hijacking and cash-in transit heists.
Not all crimes are reported
"But not all crimes are reported. For example street robberies are not reported at the same rate as house robberies. Assault and commercial crimes, such as fraud, are also not reported to police as often. Sexual offences such as rape also have a very low report rate," Newham told News24.
But, says Newham, this is a worldwide trend. "No country's crime statistics are 100% accurate. The countries with the most reliable stats only record about 60% of their crime."
Doctor Chris de Kock, an independent crime analyst who has 20 years of experience at the Human Sciences Research Council and former head of the SAPS's crime information analysis centre, agrees that figures for crimes, such as murder, are usually the most accurate.
"In a case of murder, there is a body. It's a clear-cut picture. Internationally, murder is a very comparable figure."
It gets more complicated with a crime like assault, says De Kock. "One has to ask if it's common assault, is it serious assault - there are a lot of grey areas." De Kock says victims are in many cases encouraged not to lay charges, which skews crime figures.
De Kock agrees that sexual offences remain among the most underreported crimes in South Africa.
"Especially rape, and especially when that rape occurs within a family circle, as well as child rape. But commercial crimes are also not reported because companies fear reputational damage. Petty crime is also often not reported because people feel the police won't do anything about it."
Another big problem, says De Kock, is that more serious crimes such as murder and rape are not broken into categories.
"A murder might be registered - but is that murder as a result of taxi violence, or xenophobia, is it a farm murder, or a result of any other reason? The only [separate] figure that you sometimes hear of is farm attacks and that is because the police counts these separately because of pressure from agriculture unions."
What can we expect from the latest figures?
"It's hard to speculate," says Newham. "One must remember that these statistics are six months old. None of the recent cases of gender-based violence and public violence will be included. This is why we've been calling for more regular releases of crime stats. There was a Cabinet decision to release them quarterly but that has not been implemented."
Newham says more regular updates can aid the prevention of crimes where they occur.
"But there have been some trends. For the past six years we have seen an increase in the murder rate as well as aggravated robberies. More people are getting into active criminal enterprises, which means that organised crime is increasing, which poses a profound threat to the criminal justice system.
"It also indicates that the level of violence in our society is on the increase. Murder had gone down by 54% between 1994 and 2012, but it has been going up every year since then."
De Kock says the murder rate is quite an important indicator of the stability of a country. "I don't think we can expect a dramatic drop in the murder rate, as Cele said he would aim for when the figures were released last year. I think we are going to see a similar figure or even a slight increase. When it comes to robberies, I also expect to see an increase, as well as hijackings and I would not be surprised if there was also an increase in house robberies.
"Our society is becoming increasingly violent, and violence breeds violence."
It's all 'a big show'
"There's this big hoo-ha every year - I went through it for nearly 20 years," says De Kock. "It's a big show and everybody talks about it for a few days. But not much is being done to put the statistics to practical use. You need things like visible policing and crime intelligence. Ninety-five per cent of your crime intelligence come from cases that are reported, which should then be analysed. I just have a feeling that is not being done."
Newham says if resources are dedicated to crime patterns gleaned from the statistics, those crimes will go down.
"But it doesn't seem like that is what's happening. If it were, we would be seeing reductions in the crime rate. But we have seen increases for six years in a row. I think it's unlikely that we will see big changes [following the release of the statistics].
"We really need to see a fundamental mind shift in the way the police understand what they do and how they engage in partnerships.
"There's no indication that the police are using the data they have effectively."
According to Newham, the past financial year's statistics will be a test for Cele and whether there has been any improvement under his leadership as police minister.
"There has to be clear efforts at police reform in the short and medium term for there to be any change."