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Still no UN recommended police-to-population ratio – ghost statistic cited again

This article is more than 1 year old

In a March 2023 opinion piece for the Business Day newspaper, the president of South Africa’s Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, Zizamele Cebekhulu-Makhaza, gave his take on the country’s crime problem. 

Among other things, he said, “we need to ensure that we continuously bolster our [police] numbers every year”. He referred to president Cyril Ramaphosa’s February pledge to recruit 10,000 more police officers in 2023, saying that number was simply not enough. 

To support his argument, Cebekhulu-Makhaza cited Africa Check’s findings on police-to-population ratios. This is a basic measure of how many people in the country a police officer serves. 

“According to Africa Check,” he said, “the ratio … was one officer for every 403 people in 2022.” Apart from the fact that the year in question was 2020/21, this is correct.

But Cebekhulu-Makhaza then compared this ratio to one recommended by the United Nations (UN): “By contrast, the UN recommends a ratio of one police officer for every 220 people.” This showed the pressure the South African Police Service (SAPS) was under to maintain law and order, he said.  

No evidence for ‘UN-recommended’ ratio

The problem is that this often-quoted ratio appears to be a ghost statistic. 

In 2019, we investigated a claim by police minister Bheki Cele that the country’s police-to-population ratio was well below the UN’s recommended ratio. 

At the time, a spokesperson for the ministry told us we would find the statistic on the UN's website. But we found no such thing. 

Lizette Lancaster, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told Africa Check then that the concept of a recommended ratio had been “taken as fact for years”, despite the lack of evidence that it existed. 

Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime in Geneva, Switzerland, told Africa Check that he doubted whether there could be agreement on a recommended ratio. And, he said, if such figures were to have “official status” they would have been included in the UN standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice. But, he said, “they are not there”. 

‘It’s not about numbers, it’s about strategy’

We last looked at the ratio of the police to the population in South Africa in August 2022. At the time, there was one police officer for every 403 people. The ratio was calculated using employment figures from the SAPS 2020/21 annual report and Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for 2020.  

Since then, SAPS has published its latest annual report, with data from the 2021/22 financial year. According to the report, the total number of employees in that year was 176,180. If you excluded administrative staff, or employees who were not “on the ground” officers, the number fell to 142,932

Using Stats SA’s mid-year population estimates for 2021 the police-to-population ratio was 1:341. Excluding administrative staff, the ratio was one police officer for every 421 people. 

But there’s a limit to how much numbers and ratios can tell us. As Gareth Newham, head of justice and violence prevention at the ISS, previously told Africa Check: “It’s not about numbers, it's about strategy; it’s about having a clear crime plan.” 

Although they are often used as an international benchmark for the functioning of an effective police force, experts say that in reality performance is likely to have little to do with these ratios.

To his credit, Cebekhulu-Makhaza acknowledged that numbers weren’t everything. But he advocated increasing police numbers as a key strategy for reducing crime and backed up his argument with a dubious, previously debunked statistic.

The risk is that policy and resource allocation will be based on such data.

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