The new police National Commissioner Bheki Cele’s argument in favour of a moratorium on issuing crime statistics is ‘not convincingâ€, according to Dr Johan Burger, senior researcher in the Crime, Justice and Politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies.
‘Mr Cele would do well to understand that withholding crimes statistics will have more of a negative impact than releasing them and reassuring the public that something is being done,â€ Burger told the Mail & Guardian Online.
Cele has said he supports the moratorium because criminals could use the statistics to their advantage, because Interpol and some of South Africa’s peers only release statistics periodically, and because the statistics would be used for ‘political bashingâ€.
But Burger dismissed all of Cele’s arguments. ‘The police present an overall crime picture but they are not the only custodians of crime figures.â€
Burger pointed out that South African Development Community and the Consumer Goods Council also kept crime figures. ‘Is he [Cele] going to ask SADC and the Consumer Goods Council to also withhold their crime statistics? Because that would be foolish,â€ Burger said.
Burger said it was ‘sillyâ€ to argue that withholding crime statistics would disadvantage criminals, because there were other ways for them to get information on crime. ‘They also read newspapers and watch the news,â€ he said.
He contested the idea that crime-ravaged countries in Central and South America should be considered South Africa’s ‘peersâ€.
‘I would think you should compare yourselves with countries that act as an example in terms of where you would like to go,â€ he said. He also disagreed with Cele’s assertion that crime statistics had not been released in Central and South American countries for a long time.
‘The fact remains that these countries do release crime figures although not with such regularity. Columbia has worse violent crime than South Africa, and they release their statistics,â€ he said.
Fear of political bashing was also a poor excuse, he said. ‘You will always have parties who will use statistics as a handy tool to criticise. But you have to balance the advantages with the disadvantages. Political bashing disappears completely when compared to all the advantages [releasing the statistics] could have.â€
For Burger, the ‘obvious reasonâ€ for calling a moratorium on the statistics was probably that ‘people within the police services have become oversensitive to criticism. That is the wrong reason. You cannot become less transparent just because you’ve been criticised. If crime statistics are not released the police will be even more criticised and people will draw negative conclusions from that.â€
According to Burger, crime statistics in South Africa have improved significantly over the past few years. ‘Our overall crime rate has actually seen a 24% improvement since 2003. Our murder rate has decreased on a consistent basis since 1995, with more than 40%.â€ he said.
‘There are so many more reasons why crime statistics should be released,â€ Burger said, arguing that the public has the ‘absolute rightâ€ to know what the crime situation in the country is, what the biggest threats to personal safety and the safety of their property is, and which areas to avoid. He said the business community and international investors had a similar right to the information.
Out of context?
Cele on Tuesday accused the Democratic Alliance (DA) of quoting him out of context as supporting a moratorium on crime statistics, while he had no personal preference on the matter.
The main opposition party at the weekend released an edited transcript of a radio talk show in which Cele appeared to indicate clearly that he would support a moratorium because criminals could ”use” the statistics.
A recording of the interview on SAfm’s After Eight Debate on Friday, however, reveals that Cele said he would favour suppressing statistics if the information could serve as a tip-off to criminals on police planning.
Pressed to say whether this meant he supported a moratorium, the commissioner answered: ”I will support that. But I will support whatever we do that gives us an upper edge to fight the crime. If releasing stats help us to fight crime better, I will support that. If a moratorium helps us better, I will support that.”
Asked again what option he would favour, Cele responded: ”I can’t express personal preferences. My preferences are basically based on the achievement and what do we achieve out of decisions we take.”