SAPS has the tools to improve public safety. So why is crime still soaring?

2019-03-29 06:00
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Forensic scientist investigates fingerprints

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The South African Police Service (SAPS) has a substantial Crime Intelligence Division that is tasked with identifying the individuals, groups and networks involved in serious crime. Why then, is public safety deteriorating and what can be done to improve things?

In 2018, people in South Africa had a 19% greater chance of being murdered than in 2012 with 13 more murders being committed every day on average. Over the same time period, armed robberies had increased by almost 40% with 103 more armed attacks each day on average.

Most of these robberies take place against people walking in the streets or while relaxing in their homes. Violent organised crime such as cash-in-transit heists, truck and vehicle hijacking surged.

Given the vast resources available to the SAPS, this should not be happening. Between 2011/12 and 2018/19 the budget of the SAPS has increased by 56% from R55,8bn to the tune of R86,8bn. Successive ministers of police have called for more police officials, but with 193 297 personnel, the SAPS is not going to be able to afford more people given future budget projections.

The SAPS do not have to police all 57,8 million people living in the country. Rather, they should prioritise improving the deployment of their available resources to effectively target those involved in the most serious crimes. To achieve this, the police need reliable and accurate information on those individuals, groups and networks involved in crimes such as murder and robbery.

Most individuals who commit violent and organised crimes such as street robberies and hijacking, tend to do so repeatedly. If the perpetrators are effectively prosecuted, and their support networks dismantled, then these crimes will reduce substantially as the perpetrators will be in prison. This will also deter other potential perpetrators from committing these crimes.  

This is where the SAPS Crime Intelligence Division can play a crucial role. With a current budget of R3,1bn and 8 937 personnel, the division is tasked with gathering and analysing information so as to provide support for investigations and crime prevention operations. To do this, the division consists of two sub-programmes, namely 'Crime Intelligence Operations' and 'Intelligence and Information Management'.

One of the most important tasks of the 'Crime Intelligence Operations' programme is to undertake what are called 'network operations' which are aimed at gathering information on criminal organisations, groups or individuals that could be turned into evidence for use in court against them.

The second programme is responsible for analysing information and developing various reports that can be used by operational policing units, either specialised but mostly at stations or across clusters of stations, to better understand the nature of the crime threats in their areas and the profiles of who may be involved.

To achieve these objectives, the technology that the Crime Intelligence Division has at its disposal is formidable. For example, with the court's permission, they have the ability to intercept and interfere with cellphone communication without the user knowing via what is commonly referred to as the 'grabber'. This is but one small part of the vast capability available to crime intelligence officers that can enable them to profile and monitor people of interest. Moreover, their operations are funded by a highly secretive, multimillion-Rand Secret Service Account (SSA).

If Crime Intelligence works effectively in close collaboration with detectives and other operational units, big improvements in public safety can be achieved.

For example, the SAPS in Gauteng used a crime intelligence driven approach while implementing their 'Aggravated Robbery Strategy' which achieved substantial increases in the arrests and convictions of perpetrators and networks involved in key armed robberies. The result was a 32% reduction in hijacking, 20% reduction in residential robberies and 19% reduction in business robberies between 2009 and 2011. This was achieved by less than 500 of the 34 000 SAPS personnel in the province at the time.

Alternatively, if this capacity ends up in the wrong hands it can lead to terrible abuse that easily becomes a threat, rather than an asset to public safety. Since 2012 the Crime Intelligence Division has been falling apart. For example, the number of Crime Intelligence network operations dropped from 49 019 in 2012 to 859 in 2015. Similarly, the number of station and cluster crime threat analysis reports dropped from 87 178 to 39 402 in the same time period.

All indications are that the state capture project associated with the former president Jacob Zuma has resulted in the SAPS' crime intelligence capability being misused and destabilised with grave consequences for the legitimacy and effectiveness of the SAPS. The findings of the recent report by an independent panel revealed the abuse of the State Security Agency (SSA) capability and provides a case in point.

While there are recent indications that Crime Intelligence is improving following the appointment of a new national head Lieutenant General Peter Jacobs, destabilisation by rogue intelligence officers continues. 

Until there is a complete overhaul of the SAPS as part of a medium-term reform programme aimed at professionalising the organisation and building public trust, it will continue to face an uphill battel to improve public safety. If, however, the next administration after the 2019 elections prioritises such an initiative, South Africa can look forward to becoming a much safer and better place in which to live.

- Gareth Newham is head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

Read more on:    saps  |  crime

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