SA crime reductions during COVID-19 lockdown may be short lived

The dramatic drop in crime is welcome news, but the trend is unlikely to continue after lockdown ends.

Pretoria, South Africa  Official statistics released today show major decreases in crime during the lockdown associated with COVID-19. There are lessons to be learned from these encouraging figures but the reductions are unlikely to be sustained in the longer term.

On 31 July, the South African Police Service (SAPS) released crime statistics for the 12-month period ending on 31 March 2020. An analysis of these figures and the trends they reveal over time showed that two of the most serious crimes, murder and robbery, had again increased for the eighth consecutive year. These are also the two crime types that give the best sense of the state of public safety in the country.

The crime statistics released today cover April to June 2020, and show a very different picture. During the three-month period, which coincides with the COVID-19 lockdown, the most substantial crime decreases in the past 26 years were recorded.

Major crime reductions

Never before has a 35.8% decline in murder and a 39.5% reduction in armed robbery been recorded over a three-month period. Serious crime overall, which includes all 17 offences documented by police, dropped by 34.2%.

This means that between April and June, 1 932 fewer people were murdered than during the same period last year. On average 21 fewer lives were lost every day over these three months. There were also 14 106 fewer reports of armed robbery.

Lockdown regulations undoubtedly contributed to these sizeable reductions. This has been the experience of many high-crime localities around the world since the COVID-19 outbreak. In Latin America for example, lockdowns saw murder fall by 56% in Colombia and by 43% in two of Mexico’s states.

In South Africa, restrictions on movement and the sale of alcohol, together with a heightened police and military presence in high-crime areas, played a role. It is also likely that decreases in some crime types were the result of victims being unwilling or unable to report offences to police.  

Lockdown had an effect, but not everywhere

Crime levels fell sharply during the first month of lockdown when restrictions were most severe. For example, in April total violent crime declined by a substantial 55.4%. Murder dropped by 55.5% and armed robbery by 55.4%. Two months later when regulations were eased, the decrease in crime was far less pronounced. 

During June, most crimes continued to decline but at lower rates than in previous months. For example, murder dropped by 11.8% and armed robbery by 21.3%. Despite these welcome reductions, the trend suggests that crime may return to pre-lockdown levels once restrictions are removed. A similar pattern has been documented elsewhere. In the US, murders increased on average by 37% across 20 cities in June compared to May.

It is worth noting that reductions in murder were not recorded throughout South Africa during lockdown. Substantial increases occurred in nearly one-third of the top 30 high murder police precincts. For example, murder rose by 111% in Atteridgeville in Gauteng, by 75.9% in Philippi East in the Western Cape, and by 62.5% in Bityi in the Eastern Cape. The reasons for these trends should be determined by police and their partners so that targeted, evidence-based interventions can be used to improve community safety.

Gender-based violence during lockdown

The SAPS data suggests significant drops in reported crimes against women and children. However, police statistics on sexual assault and gender-based violence are typically unreliable as relatively few victims officially report incidents. During lockdown, for example, victims may have been unable to report these crimes if they live in the same residence as perpetrators. There may however have been some reductions due to less alcohol being consumed and more household or community intervention to prevent these crimes from occurring.

Unintended consequences of policing lockdown regulations

Police Minister Bheki Cele announced today that 292 252 people had been arrested for breaking lockdown regulations. This focus on arrests for non-compliance with lockdown no doubt distracted SAPS from other public safety priorities.

One indication of this trade-off is the substantial 23.1% drop in police-identified cases of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. It is also possible that a heightened police presence dissuaded people from carrying or transporting illegal guns and other contraband. More research is needed to fully appreciate the impact of lockdown on criminal justice practices and public safety in the longer term.

Quarterly release of crime statistics welcomed

The decision of the police minister and the SAPS to release crime information on a quarterly basis is very positive and may enable greater public and private sector involvement in crime prevention.

‘The minister and the SAPS’ Crime Registrar have done the public a great service by providing more detailed information more regularly,’ said Gareth Newham, Head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute for Security Studies. ‘This will enable a better understanding of the circumstances in which crime takes place and the factors driving it. This is the first step in developing evidence-based and effective crime reduction and prevention strategies.’

For further information and interviews, please contact:

Johan Burger, ISS: [email protected]; +27 82 822 0962

Andrew Faull, ISS: [email protected]; +27 798339549 

Lizette Lancaster Meyer, ISS: [email protected]; +27 83 321 2060 

Gareth Newham, ISS: [email protected]; +27 82 887 1557

Photo: Roger Sedres / Alamy Stock Photo

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