Friday, August 07, 2009

Crime Statistics

Perhaps our leaders think that if you just hide the crime stats, the crime will go away.

New police chief buffoon off to a flying fart

New national police commissioner Bheki Cele hasn't exactly denied that he favours a moratorium on the release of crime statistics. Rather, he says he was quoted out of context.

The idea of a moratorium is being considered, it seems, and no decision has yet been made. But what Cele had to say this week when he tried to fudge the fact that he appeared to support such a moratorium was almost worse: "There are currently critical issues that are being looked into in addressing the issue of the release of crime statistics," he rather circuitously said.

But then, more significantly: "If the release of crime statistics will assist the police in devising new strategies to fight crime, we shall continue doing it, but if it is the opposite then it defeats the purpose," said the commissioner.

Unpack this comment and there is much about it that is disturbing. First is that it surely should not be the South African Police Service's decision whether or not to release the statistics: that decision is a political one that must be made by the government, not the commissioner. But second, and more fundamentally, the statistics are not, or certainly should not be, just for the police's own internal consumption. Of course, data on crime are essential to help the police devise strategies to fight it. But they are essential, too, to enable citizens to hold the police accountable. We are entitled to see crime statistics, and regularly, because the government spends a great deal of our tax money on policing. After all, law enforcement is arguably the most crucial service the government can deliver: what could be more important than saving lives and protecting people and property?

Crime statistics also help to empower citizens, and businesses, to fight crime in their own communities. Just as the police should be watching the data to see what's happening and act accordingly, so too should community policing forums and other nongovernmental agencies, some of which would be able to offer valuable insights that could help the police.

So when Cele punts the notion that it's only the police who need (or are entitled to) crime stats, he reveals a deep misunderstanding of the role of official statistics, be they about crime or anything else. It's a misunderstanding that is profoundly antidemocratic.

But it has also, sadly, been typical of the government's defensive attitude to law enforcement over the past decade or so. Perhaps our leaders think that if you just hide the crime stats, the crime will go away. Remember the moratorium on crime stats former president Thabo Mbeki imposed? That the new Zuma government should contemplate the same is distressing, to say the least. As it is, we haven't seen the stats yet this year, so the most recent figures we have to assess how the police are performing, and how SA is doing on crime, go back to March last year .

What we need are more crime stats, not fewer of them. The more often we see them, the less heat they will generate and the more intelligent analysis. Far from a moratorium, what we should be looking at is monthly crime stats.

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