The numbers have stories to tell about South Africa's crime rates, for those who are prepared to extract meaning from statistics, says Franz Krüger.
There are three kinds of journalists, an old joke goes: those who can count and those who can’t.
The latter had a field day last week when South Africa received its annual dose of crime statistics. In one case, the use of ratios to reflect crime was dismissed as a trick.
Really? Where would we feel safer: in a village of 250 people or in a teeming city with a population of millions that each experiences five murders? Absolute figures provide important insights but, of course, it makes sense to compare incidents of crime in the light of population statistics.
The police made a valiant attempt to put a positive spin on the figures. In several categories of crime, the figures showed increases year on year, but the trend over nine years was a positive one.
Their attempts to focus attention on the long-term picture went down like a lead balloon and the dominant view of the statistics has become that they are the worst we have seen in 10 years.
But what exactly does that mean?
In general, the figures do not show increases in crime over that period, although there are important exceptions, like the trio crimes of home, business and motor vehicle robberies. What they do show is that, in a number of categories, there has been a worrying upswing after a long decline.
Murder is the best example: the rate dropped by 27% over nine years, the figures say, but the year ending March 2013 saw a slight increase. A fact sheet from the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) notes the figures show it was “one of the worst years in the last decade from a crime reduction point of view”.
In the rush for a quick, tweetable summary of a complex set of numbers, a crucial nuance has been lost: the real problem highlighted by these figures is that some positive trends of the past few years have reversed. Is this a turning point, or an aberration that is already being corrected? We will have to wait a year to find out.
Since the first reports, some focus has shifted to the method used. The ISS has argued that the ratio calculations were based on incorrect population estimates, which skewed the comparisons. And Politicsweb has recalculated the ratios accordingly, providing a new set of numbers that, for instance, turn the police’s reduction in sexual crimes into a slight increase.
Critics have also highlighted the fact that the statistics are released too infrequently and too long after the fact, as well as the problem of under-reporting. Many have made the self-evident point that a more regular release of numbers at police station level would help the fight against crime.
These are all important points that impact on the believability of the figures. But perhaps an even more fundamental problem is the credibility of the police authorities themselves.
When police commissioner Riah Phiyega stands up to go through the figures, she’s already at a disadvantage in terms of public trust because there have been too many missteps on her watch, from dodgy appointments, hastily reversed, to a recent apparent attempt to mislead the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into Marikana.
The turmoil in crime intelligence does not only have an impact on the police’s ability to tackle crime on the ground, it also undermines public trust.
The attempt to spin the numbers as showing that crime is under control, as Phiyega claimed, was doomed to failure, not just because the statistics are open to challenge but because the credibility of the police’s leadership is so badly compromised.
It is a common problem in our public life: too few of South Africa’s officials understand that they can’t do their job effectively once they have lost public trust. In the case of the police, a lack of public faith undermines their ability to protect society and fight crime.
At the same time, journalists should resist the temptation to dismiss the statistics and move on. Even if they are flawed, there are many interesting stories to be written about the numbers.
There are provincial differences to be highlighted and understood, explanations to be found for trends in particular categories of crime and stories to be written about the apparent increase in convictions. It is possible to note the reservations about the figures and still look at the trend for the trio crimes, for instance: why they increased dramatically over the five years until 2008-2009, then dropped somewhat for a few years, and have now shown an increase again.
Numbers on their own are just numbers; it’s up to journalists and others to extract the meaning from them. Of course, it helps if one can count.
The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Franz Krüger at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.