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11 Jul 2008: ISS Today: Crime Statistics In Perspective
11 July 2008

11 July 2008: The 2007/08 Crime Statistics In Perspective


The annual release by the South African Police Service (SAPS) of our country`s crime statistics has become an important event, especially for the media and research community. Due to high levels of crime, especially violent crime, there is despondency about our safety and the ability of the police and the rest of the criminal justice system to bring an end to the crime problem. It is thus not surprising that this is so even when reductions in some crime categories are reported. Often, the police are accused of manipulating the crime figures. It should, however, be stated that no evidence has ever been brought forward in this regard.


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It should be noted that the disparity between crime figures and public perception is not a South African peculiarity. In 2005/06, the British Crime Survey found that despite the fact that the total number of crimes were falling over a number of years, high proportions of people continued to believe that crime had been on the increase.


In our country, the 2007/08 crime statistics indicate both good and bad news. The good news is that the overall crime rate has dropped by 4,7% and the rate for contact crimes decreased by 6,4%. This includes a decrease of 4,7% in murder, 8,8% in rape and 7,4% in aggravated robbery.


The bad news is twofold: firstly, the rates of five of the six sub-categories of aggravated robbery continued to increase over the last couple of years; and, secondly, the decreases are from exceptionally high levels. This means that promising as the situation may be, a consistent decrease over a number of years (ten or more) is required before we might reach internationally acceptable levels. It also means that until the required levels are reached the general perceptions of crime and the fear of crime will persist, as will the distrust of police crime statistics.


To make matters worse, it is the types of crime listed as sub-categories of aggravated robbery that continue to have the biggest impact on public perceptions of safety. For example, robberies at residential premises (house robbery) have been increasing on a year-on-year basis since it was first recorded in 2002/03 as a separate crime category. Between 2002/03 and 2007/08 it increased from 9 063 to 14 481 incidents. Close to 11 000 of these incidents happened in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. In addition, carjacking increased with 4,4%; bank robbery with 11,6%; and robberies at business premises with 47, 4%.


However, it is intriguing that our overall crime rate peaked in 2002/03, followed by three consecutive years of decrease at approximately 6% annually. In 2006/07 this downward trend slowed to only 2%. Even the murder rate, which was on the decrease for the last twelve years, unexpectedly increased by 2,4%. Aggravated robbery, which had been decreasing since 2004/05, again increased by 4,6%in 2006/07. This upward move in the above crime rates was as unexpectedly reversed in the 2007/08 reporting period with higher percentages. From an analytical point of view, it now appears that it is more a question of what went wrong in 2006/07 than what was done right in 2007/08. The police, in their 2006/07crime report have attributed some of the increases in violent crime to the security guard strike in 2006, but it is doubtful that this is the only explanation. Researchers may want to take a deeper look at what happened in 2006/07.


Finally, it is necessary to briefly look at the credibility of the police`s crime statistics. The police`s crime figures obviously reflect only those crimes reported to them. These are electronically gathered from police stations around the country, then analysed and interpreted by the Crime Information Analysis Centre (CIAC) at police Head Office. CIAC is also responsible for the publication of the consolidated crime statistics. As indicated before, largely because decreases in these figures do not correspond with public perception, the police`s statistics are viewed with scepticism and even suspicion. Some argue that the only reason why the police can claim decreases is a decline in the number of people reporting crime.


However, victims of crime surveys in 1998, 2003 and 2007 (the last two conducted by the ISS) also indicate that overall crime is down, albeit by smaller percentages: 12% since 1998 and 4% since 2003. Notable decreases occurred in burglary, corruption, theft out of vehicles and stock theft. Robbery and car theft are among the noticeable increases. Contrary to the perception that some crime figures are positively influenced by an increase in the under-reporting of crime, the surveys indicate that reporting levels for various crimes have increased between 2003 and 2007. Especially significant is increases in the reporting rates for burglary and robbery. In 1998 57% of victims of burglary reported the incident to the police and in 2007 this increased to 81%. In 1998 41% of robbery victims reported the incident to the police and in 2007 this rate increased to 49%. The only decrease in the reporting rate was for theft out of vehicles that decreased from 57 to 51%.


Given the above, it would appear that although the police`s crime statistics certainly does not reflect all the crime that happens in this country, it is fairly accurate in terms of those crimes that are reported to them. In that sense it does enable us to determine the broad trends and tendencies of crime overall and of specific crime types.


Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime, Justice and Politics Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)