Statistically Speaking – Do we trust government’s crime numbers?

Nov 20, 2013

When the South African Police Services (SAPS) announced in September 2013 that an independent analysis showed crime statistics to be the lowest in 15 years, it didn’t say that the results were based on figures given by the police.

In early November, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) questioned the validity of those statistics, claiming that police used inaccurate population numbers—this led them to say that the crime rations released by the SAPS were statistically incorrect. Security experts claimed murder and attempted murder and sexual offences had increased more than the police had claimed.  There were reports that more people were being murdered and victims of violent crime than in 2012, and that more businesses were broken into and burgled. The SAPS hit back at these reports, saying it stood by its statistics, which were supplied by a Statistics SA census.
Who do we believe? The one thing that seems worth mentioning is that a statistic is not a fact.  We do not need to accept them as gospel. To understand statistics we should know where they are coming from and why they are being used.  There are many ways statistics can be manipulated and misrepresented to produce the desired outcome.
Numbers are powerful and underscore why statistics continue to have the power to be persuasive as evidence. Facts are not as easy to come by—often clouded by subjectivity, prejudice and self-interest.  However, the way we see crime and experience crime is important to every South African.
What we should do, as a security sector and the public, is to look at the statistics as not evidence of falling crime figures or a way to argue whether the police are covering up rising figures, but as a way to measure how people feel about serious crime in South Africa. The fact that there is such indignant fury from the ISS and crime experts, the fact that there’s a defensive backlash from the police, is very telling.  It shows that crime is central to economic, social and political concerns in South Africa.
When looking at the broad spectrum of crime in South Africa, we can all reasonably recognise that it falls to the higher end of the band. The figures are unacceptably high and that would make the SAPS feel they’re on the back foot. As the ISS pointed out, the effect of a miscalculation of statistics is that downplays the extent to which certain violent crimes are rising, while possibly inflating the categories decreasing. It doesn’t present a balanced picture.
While an independent inquiry into the figures will go a long way into supporting transparency in this regard, as a business owner or individual, we should be asking how we can protect ourselves against criminal activity and what we can positively do to eradicate it. There are strategies we can implement to protect our lives, homes, businesses, employees and reputations.  It requires awareness and action.
It is important to point out that many statistics are reliable and credible; not all reports are necessarily fallible. However, the numbers can always be played with for deceptive or diversionary means. In the war on crime, let us treat it as a war: Trust no one, suspect everything.
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