Do joint police-military crackdown operations actually reduce violent crime?

Any crime reduction effects from the current crackdown operation in Cape Town are likely to be short-lived unless a holistic and realistic plan to reduce crime and violence is devised, writes Guy Lamb.

As of last week, approximately 1 300 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers were deployed to support the South African Police Service (SAPS) as part of Operation Prosper in an attempt to restore law and order and reduce the number of incidents of violent crime in various hotspots throughout Cape Town. 

This is not the first time the SAPS and the SANDF have engaged in joint crime-fighting, crackdown operations. For more than two decades, whenever there has been an acute moral panic about violent crime, government has typically responded with the deployment of large policing operations that have often involved in the military. For example, in 2000 Operation Crackdown was launched that sought to stabilise what was perceived to be rampant criminality in 169 "flashpoint" (high crime) police precincts across South Africa.

In 2006, Operation Iron Fist was established to target numerous high crime station areas in Gauteng. In 2015 Operation Fiela-Reclaim, was initiated in response to concentrated outbreaks of xenophobic violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, but also focused on high crime areas in other provinces.

The key question is do these types of crackdown operations actually lead to a reduction in violent crime?

One of the seminal studies in this area is acclaimed US criminologist Lawrence Sherman's 1990 theory of the deterrent effects of crime crackdowns, which was comprised of an examination of 18 US case studies. Sherman's research indicated that crackdowns by law enforcement agencies could result in reductions in crime in hot spot areas if these operations created heightened uncertainty among offenders and potential offenders over the level of risk of apprehension if they commit criminal acts. It follows that these individuals may then overestimate the actual risk of apprehension and subsequently desist from offending in those areas.

Over the years a range of studies by other criminologists in the US cities of Boston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and St Louis have also shown that such crackdown operations can lead to a reduction in violent crime, especially if the authorities are able to seize large quantities of illegal firearms.

My own research in this area has suggested that such operations in South Africa may have contributed to reductions in violent crime in some high crime areas in the past. The study in question focused on murder and the illegal possession of firearms in 132 high crime police precincts in for the period from 1994 to 2015. The study showed that murder levels decreased in close to 40% of the sample precincts in the immediate aftermath of crackdown operations by the South African security forces. This was particularly the case where the authorities had been able to confiscate large quantities of illegal firearms.

It seems that there were two key variables that may have contributed to the crime reduction effect following the implementation of these crackdown operations in South Africa. Firstly, there was a disarmament effect, namely the removal of large quantities of illegal firearms from the high crime areas resulted in those persons who were at risk of perpetrating firearm violence finding it considerably more difficult to acquire firearms and ammunition.

Secondly, murder levels may have declined in high crime areas in the aftermath of crackdown operations due to the incarceration of some of the most dangerous individuals as well as those responsible for lesser crimes. The reason for this is that such arrests may have had the effect of altering the criminogenic dynamics of these spaces. That is, a substantial number of violent residents from these areas could no longer perpetrate, and/or directly mobilise peers to perpetrate violent crime.

However, a depressing finding of the study was that the apparent murder reduction impact of many of these crackdown operations appeared to have been ephemeral, in that murder levels increased a few years after crackdown operations in a noteworthy number of station areas. This has meant that since the 1990s the SAPS have found themselves locked into a cycle of bombarding high crime areas with crackdown operations in an attempt to constrain and suppress criminal offending. Indeed, in some areas, high-density operations appear to have had little or no effect on murder levels, which possibly denotes the potency of a range of pervasive risk factors for murder in such areas. These factors are diverse, and range from excessive alcohol consumption, to toxic masculinity, to political violence, to organised crime.

The SAPS themselves have, on a number of occasions publicly emphasised that crackdown operations are a stopgap to "stabilise" high crime communities in order to allow other government departments and civil society organisations to intercede in addressing the key determinants of criminality and violence. However, such multi-sectoral interventions have not been forthcoming. Various "whole-of-government" crime and violence prevention policies and strategies have been developed since 1996, yet none have been meaningfully implemented. Hence, any crime reduction effects from the current crackdown operation in Cape Town are only likely to be short-lived unless a holistic and realistic plan to reduce crime and violence in South Africa is devised.

It is essential that such a plan be allocated the necessary budgetary resources; be driven by crime and violence prevention specialists; and have the firm commitment from other relevant government departments, such as social development, education, health and treasury.

- Dr Guy Lamb is the director of the Safety and Violence Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

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