On Friday the 2nd of September, the Minister of Police, Mr Nathi Nhleko, released the latest national crime statistics for 2015/16 which again painted a rather bleak portrayal of the current crime situation in the country. While certain categories of crime are declining, other crime types, most notably murder and common assault, are on the rise. Past explanations for the high crime rates in South Africa are myriad and include rising levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality as well as the ready availability of alcohol, illegal drugs and firearms, among others.
While these explanations do offer some understanding of crime in the country, few of the previous explanations offered and/or crime preventative frameworks espoused have an integrated geographic or spatial component. This is problematic since geography and by association, GIS, can play a vital role in understanding the risk factors for crime, and how crime can be tackled.
In fact, over the past two decades GIS has become the key tool for the spatial analysis and visualisation of crime. The availability of detailed socio-economic and demographic datasets combined with crime data and computerised information technologies permit a large number of quantitative techniques to be used to assess potential crime cause and effect relationships. The value of GIS in illuminating crime lies not only in crime analysis but in its ability to interact with crime data. A GIS can pull together large quantities of information contained in crime dockets, reports, and captured crime locations and extract data through time, date, modus operandi, crime type attribute and spatial queries. Moreover, GIS can be used for operational and tactical purposes by identifying and mapping crime series; as well as in strategic decision-making by supporting decisions on locating police precincts and patrols, targeting crime in high-risk neighbourhoods, and developing policing projects.
Currently, crime levels remain alarmingly high more than two decades after democracy despite the adoption of a number of crime reduction initiatives since democratisation. For all the ambition of past crime prevention policies they have all largely failed to reduce levels of crime in the country. The time is right to re-examine current crime prevention policy and consider GIS as a technology that can make a worthwhile contribution to future policy directives. Increasing empirical evidence in the country suggests that crime and geography are inextricably linked which belie attempts to approach crime separately from its spatial context. While it may be dangerous to conflate primary crime prevention with geography, the failure to understand crime and its causes in geographic terms in the country will result in all future policy and prevention discussions taking place in an analytical and empirical vacuum.
Past research has identified pivotal and amenable neighbourhood-level risk factors which increase the risk of crime in communities. Addressing these factors is important and could potentially lower the risk of crime. This is not to say that other cultural, historical, economic, and possibly legal drivers of crime should be ignored but rather this knowledge should be supplemented with a broader understanding of “place-specific” crime risk factors. A principled and holistic crime prevention approach is required that is cognisant of the geography in which crime is occurring throughout the country. Whether the potential of GIS as a technology can be harnessed to effect change; and whether the development and implementation of such a GIS-orientated approach would have any measurable effect on the magnitude and extent of crime in South Africa is uncertain, but if all other attempts have failed, what do we have to lose.
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