It’s not as bad as you think

2011-09-10 13:07

The release of the yearly crime statistics by the SA Police Service this week added to an already rigorous debate about crime in a beloved country.

This is an important conversation, but it is sometimes undermined by mistaken beliefs. Our research has identified a number of common mistakes the public often make when they think about crime.

MYTH: Violent crime is increasing in South Africa.

This is simply not true. The statistics from 2009/10 suggest that violent crime is levelling out or decreasing.

The one category of crime that has increased since 2003/04 is commercial crime, also known as white-collar crime.

MYTH: South Africa has the highest crime or murder rate in the world. South Africa is the only country in Africa that provides yearly up-to-date statistics, so we don’t have an accurate comparison with the rest of the continent.

We actually only compare our crime rate to less than half of the countries in the world, most of them developed Western nations with greater prosperity and more established data collection systems.

: Crime is the most common cause of death or injury. The reality is that disease, vehicle and other accidents kill and hurt far more people
than crime.

: Poor townships and informal settlements are dangerous. The evidence, cited by Michael O’Donovan in a paper published recently by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), is that poorer areas generally have lower rates of reported property and violent crime than more affluent areas.

His research also showed that it is the location of poor and rich areas in proximity to one another that influences
levels of crime.

Nationally and internationally it has been found that inequality contributes to high rates of crime, especially murder. Inequality also reduces the development of social capital. Quite simply, social capital is about shared interests and values.

O’Donovan shows that while inequality within an area does not contribute to crime levels, inequality between areas does do so significantly.

In other words, when people with different or highly unequal levels of income live in the same place, there is less likelihood of a high rate of violent and property crime than if you have two communities situated close to one another with vastly different income levels.

Throw in the fact that the differences between the two communities are likely to be differences of race or ethnicity as well as class, and you have a situation in which building social capital – or shared interests – is close to impossible.

Changing this means changing the way in which cities and towns are settled so that rich and poor live close to one another in the same areas.

MYTH: Poverty causes crime. High levels of inequality, such as those in South Africa, are more closely related to murder than poverty. MYTH: Women and girls are more likely than men to be victims of crime.

Again, this is not true. Young black men are more likely to be crime victims, particularly victims of murder, as was demonstrated in a paper by Kopano Ratele presented at the ISS’s international conference on crime in December last year.

MYTH: The police can prevent all sorts of crime. In fact the police can do very little to prevent many types of crime, including murder, assault, domestic violence, rape and burglary.

The police do have an important role in the investigation of such crimes and ensuring that they reach court, but the actual causes of these crimes are societal and require social solutions.

The ISS – and its crime and justice programme – has looked at reasons some of these crime myths and misperceptions are so hard to change.

We don’t get enough information. The SA Police Service is good at releasing yearly statistics, but once a year is not enough.

More regular releases of information and figures about crime would be helpful in preventing people from relying on the media and gossip for their information and analysis of crime.

The media paints a skewed picture of crime. We recognise that in journalism it is bad news that makes a good story.

But the public need to be aware that newspapers and television news will tend to focus on the worst incidents.

This creates the impression that they happen more often than they do. For example, most media reports of house robberies involve a rape, murder or serious injury.

In reality, 2% of house robberies result in a murder, 4% in a rape and 12% in an injury. Crime and police programmes on TV present an unrealistic picture of policing.

The real world of crime and policing in South Africa is very different to what people see on CSI.

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