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Police minister's speech a glass half full

Crime levels are dropping, South Africa’s police Minister Nathi Mthethwa assured the country’s parliament recently, adding that “contrary to the current discourse more people are beginning to feel safe”.

He reeled off the police’s achievements over the past three years; cases of murder have fallen by 17.2% and incidents of attempted murder have dropped “remarkably” by 21.8%. Bank robberies have fallen by 64.2%, cash-in-transit heists by 53.6%, home robberies by 12.5% and sexual offences cases by 11.9%.

So is it all good news then? No. Mthethwa chose his words and his numbers carefully. Uncomfortable truths went largely ignored and many of the statistics were questionable.

What the minister didn't say

Let's start with police performance. The minister spoke of “conduct which suggests criminality from within the police” and made tepid assurances that “we are committed to cleaning up the police service through strong internal oversight”.

He said nothing of the R14-billion - now possibly R20-billion - in civil claims still pending against police for wrongful shootings, assaults, accidents and damage to property. (In the last financial year 10,552 such claims were brought against police).

He ignored the Marikana massacre in which 34 striking mineworkers were gunned down by police in August last year; the deadliest mass-shooting by police since the end of apartheid.

He failed to mention the death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia who was tied to the back of a police vehicle and dragged through the streets of Daveyton in February this year. Nor did he refer to Andries Tatane, the unarmed protestor who died in April 2011 after being beaten and shot by riot police.

Mthethwa said deaths in policy custody had fallen in recent years, but didn’t mention that despite this, 720 people had still died in custody in the last financial year. Nor did he refer to the 4,923 complaints logged with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

He tried to characterise the crisis of corruption, theft, fraud, nepotism and incompetence which has crippled the police’s key Crime Intelligence division as mere “instability”.

A skewed portrait of reality

The statistics Mthethwa chose to use, presented a skewed picture of reality.

Reported crime in South Africa actually increased - albeit slightly - in the last two financial years, from  2,071,487 cases in 2010/11 to 2,085,757 cases in the 2011/12 financial year. More than 40 people were murdered on average every day in 2011/12 with police recording a total of 15,609 murders. South Africa’s murder rate, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), is four-and-a-half times higher than the world average. This is despite the 17.2% reduction over the past three years that was referred to by Mthethwa and a 54% decrease in the number of murders since 1994.

How accurate are the police's crime statistics?

In an article published in December last year, ISS researchers Chandre Gould, Johan Burger and Gareth Newham argued that while the murder statistics “may accurately reflect reality, there is ample reason to question the veracity of police data for other forms of interpersonal violence”.

This includes attempted murder, a category which saw a sudden and seemingly inexplicable decline after 2003.

In 2004, the South African government set a target of reducing violent crime by seven to ten per cent every year. Within five years violent crime numbers dropped by a staggering 25%. Was it good policing or were the numbers being fiddled?

Since 2008 there have been persistent press reports of police cooking crime statistics. One of the most shocking examples was revealed in June 2009 at the Mountain Rise police station in Pietermaritzburg in Kwazulu-Natal province.

Evidence in court revealed that the station head had ordered police under his command to only investigate cases where suspects could easily be identified. Case dockets that did not meet this criteria were stockpiled and later burnt. As a result of the tampering, Mountain Rise became the most successful police station in the province and officers were rewarded with bonuses totalling R500 000.

Perverse incentives

In a 2010 article, published in the ISS SA Crime Quarterly, researcher David Bruce argued that the government target or “key performance indicator” set for police in 2004 had created a “perverse incentive” for them to under-record violent crime in order to meet the objective.

According to Bruce, another factor, was the way in which the performance of individual police stations was measured.

Stations across the country were ranked by a computerised system which scored them according to reductions in crime and increases in their rates of detection. Police at the highest scoring stations were apparently entitled to performance bonuses.

“Senior management,” Bruce wrote, “was more concerned with reducing crime than with how this reduction was achieved.”

Rape figures are notoriously unreliable

Mthethwa’s claim that sexual offences cases had fallen by 11.9% - and rapes by 2.9% - over the past three years should also be treated with suspicion. Rape statistics are notoriously unreliable and there is compelling evidence that rape and sexual offences cases are rarely reported to police. A 2002 study, for instance, found that only one in nine women who had been raped reported the attack to police. Other studies suggested one in seven women reported rapes. Consider that a survey conducted by South Africa’s Medical Research Council in 2010 has suggested that between 28% and 37% of South African men have committed rape at least once.

The police’s ability to properly investigate sexual offences crimes was crippled in 2006 when various specialist units, including the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units were disbanded and broken up in 2006. It is only since 2011 that efforts have been made to reintroduce the units.

The 11.9% decline that Mthethwa chose to highlight could be an indication that fewer and fewer rape and sexual offences cases are being reported.

Serious doubts

Bruce has previously argued that there is a desperate need for a “culture of integrity” in the recording of crime stats.

“[U]ntil it is demonstrated that such a culture has been established there will be serious doubts about the reliability of official crime statistics, as well as questions about whether crime statistics and detection rates should be included as key indicators in performance measures.”

Mthethwa’s attempt to portray the glass as half-full, should be viewed in this light.

Julian Rademeyer is the Southern Africa editor of Africa Check and author of the book Killing for Profit - Exposing the illegal rhino horn trade.

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