Safety vs statistics in the fight against crime
Our national fixation on arrest rates and other policing data masks — and may even exacerbate — an inability to ensure safety
The subject of crime in South Africa remains central to public debates, private conversations, and the lived experiences of most. Invariably it is the police who are earmarked for blame, with rampant crime understood to be the result of a failure of policing. Such failure, however, presupposes that a model of "successful" policing exists by which this can be judged.
And it is this concept of success that may inadvertently be at the heart of many such failures.
Concerns about crime reach their annual crescendo with the release of the crime statistics. Common questions emerge each year. Do more arrests mean safer streets, for instance? Can the police actually arrest everyone who has or is about to commit a crime, and irrespective of this, does an arrest without conviction still promise safety? Are the police doing enough to "fight" crime?While these remain pertinent, it is not by chance that they are raised when the crime statistics are released. For many, there is a correlation between an increase in the number of arrests and societal levels of safety. More arrests mean fewer criminals on the streets, or so the logic goes.
There are, however, a number of flaws in this logic, not only in the equation itself but in the consequences of its demands, the outcomes of which are both troubling and preventable.
I want to highlight two symbolic examples of this: performance management and the personal demand for promotion.
Speaking to the first, it should be remembered that the crime statistics presented to the public are the end product of a vast recording system integral to everything from the management of resources and personnel to the monitoring of performance of individual officers. When public demand and political pressure for increases in arrests meet such recording systems, the result is that performance itself becomes a function of the statistical correlation between numeric increases in activity and the bolstering of public safety.
This drives the organisation to "perform" in specific ways, with increases in such actions indicative of "good" policing. But in many instances, simply increasing arrest rates does not automatically produce a safer society. Arrest rates may contribute if strategically utilised, but are only one tool among many others.Safety, in short, is a generative framework in which the provision of multiple services intersects to produce healthy relationships between people that keep them safe and secure. Arrests can be used to remove or limit the movement of specific individuals, but that will not replace the streetlights, provide education, provide guidance to young people, and ensure families have healthcare.
Arresting some people can be the worst form of response. Over the past decade the number of arrests for drug-related offences has increased by about 170%. This is usually presented as a very good thing, as it is assumed that a) drugs are a bad thing; b) drug users are problematic and likely to commit all sorts of other crimes; and c) that drug addiction can be solved by throwing users in jail. More arrests, therefore, equals a safer society.
But such an analysis is reductive in the least, and usually based on false preconceptions. It presupposes that the size of the group of "offenders" is stable and therefore, if the act of arrest removes individuals from the larger group, more arrests ultimately mean a smaller group of people.
Is this true?
If one uses pricing data to track the illegal drug market, it is clear that the most widely used illegal drugs are more affordable now than 10 years ago. The increase in arrests is not indicative of a decrease in the size of the drug-using population, but a function of increased access to drugs by vastly more people.
The presupposition that drugs can somehow be eliminated from society, or that this is actually wanted, is patently false, as shown by the absolute failure of the war on drugs and the continued legality of alcohol.For those who are charged and for the very, very few who are convicted, prison is hardly an ideal place for any type of recovery to occur. Illegal drugs are easily available, violence is manifest at all times, and the pressure to not isolate oneself is intense — all of which contribute to an enabling rather than limiting environment for drug use.
Focusing on the second concern - the personal need for promotion - similar problems arise. Police performance at the individual or station level draws on numeric markers that somehow quantify effort, the result of which is that promotion is itself in part only possible by ensuring that such figures are attained.
This is not in itself problematic, but, embedded in the South African context in which low-ranking officers are poorly paid and yet levels of debt among the wider population are significantly high, the result is that for many, the meeting of performance so as to be promoted becomes a serious and immediate need.
The result is the targeting of marginalised populations, the processing of detainees for expedience rather than for conviction, and the responding to crime in a manner that is often more concerned with the accumulation of numbers than the leveraging of a service. None of which substantively contributes to safety and security.
Safety is so much more than statistics. Safety is something that is felt and lived, producing positive relationships between people and institutions. The demand of statistics in the "fight" against crime is so much less than this, and encourages the very types of policing that actively undermine feelings of safety.
This is neither to solely blame nor to vindicate the SAPS, but rather to highlight that policing is ultimately reflective of the society in which it occurs, and in this instance, the demand for numbers without reflection on the effects of their accumulation may unfortunately mirror a South African concern for a particular brand of justice rather than the desire to build a safer society.
• Dr Howell is research director at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum and co-editor of the book Policing reform in Africa: Moving towards a rights-based approach in a climate of terrorism, insurgency and serious violent crime