For pandemics and policing, evidence matters in times of crisis


South African police were fighting an epidemic long before the COVID-19 crisis began to ravage the world. Persistently high levels of crime and violence have been a challenge for decades, and like the coronavirus, they have a severe impact on the economy and people’s well-being.

But from a crisis comes opportunity, and police can learn valuable lessons from the medical community’s evidence-based response to the pandemic. Responsible medical practitioners and governments make decisions based on evidence. They scrutinise the best available data and research to determine what is most likely to work to achieve desired outcomes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is an evidence-based body that aims to be guided by the best available scientific knowledge. Politicians and health experts justifying various lockdowns and restrictions have repeatedly referred to what ‘the evidence’ currently suggests about COVID-19 and why restrictions are necessary.

Policymakers are learning from what has worked or failed at home and abroad, and are rapidly responding to it. For example, the WHO first suggested that members of the public needn’t wear face masks unless showing symptoms of COVID-19. In late March new evidence suggested that compulsory mask-wearing could significantly slow the virus’s spread, and South Africa’s government subsequently made mask-wearing in public mandatory from 1 May.

All spheres of government can improve by adopting evidence-based approaches

It is important that the public grasp and appreciate this notion of ‘evidence’. In South Africa, and many other countries, evidence-led governance offers the best chance of success in this epic and unprecedented struggle. But it isn’t only government health departments that should be evidence-led. Almost all spheres of government can improve their effectiveness and efficiency by adopting evidence-based approaches. This includes policing.

Policing policy, tactics and decisions – and South Africa’s overall response to crime and violence – should be based on the best evidence for what works to reduce harm and promote trust in the police.

Evidence-based practices are forged from research rather than tradition, intuition or instinct. To claim – for example that COVID-19 is spread through the air, or that increasing police numbers will reduce crime – one must be able to refer to a body of high-quality research that supports the claim. If a reliable source doesn’t exist, hypotheses must be tested to generate evidence through research, experimentation and replication.

This is what’s happening with COVID-19 and medical science, and why advice from experts seems to change fairly regularly. Scientists, doctors and researchers are trying to understand the disease while at the same time doing their best to prevent its spread and save lives.

Policing traditionally celebrates experience and intuition over research and evaluation

Medicine is an evidence-based profession. Health scientists carry out experiments, test hypotheses and share their findings with others. They are not afraid to admit what they don’t know. Good doctors stay abreast of the best available evidence to be effective in their work.

Yet where South Africa and the world’s medical fraternity has responded to COVID-19 in a transparent and evidence-based manner, policing in South Africa and around the world has traditionally celebrated experience and intuition over research and evaluation.

Of course experience is a form of evidence, and sometimes intuition is important. But policing that is primarily guided by evidence for what works in reducing crime and building trust, or which is carefully planned and evaluated when introducing new practices, is more likely to produce the desired outcome.

Evidence shows that random police patrols, rapid response to calls for service and reactive investigation have limited impact in reducing crime. Police get much better results from being proactive and fair, from targeting specific people, places and behaviours, and when they tackle specific problems.

Crime and violence, like COVID-19, should be fought with reason, data and evidence

For example a 12-year analysis of murder in South Africa’s most notorious policing area, Nyanga in Cape Town, shows that 71 murders were recorded in one small cul-de-sac, with most attacks happening within five or six dwellings. When violence is so focused spatially, police can tailor interventions to disrupt it.

Like the health workers fighting COVID-19, police can’t be everywhere or address every challenge. But they can be where harm is most severe, and do what is most promising to address it, while monitoring their work and adding lessons to the evidence base. As in medicine, this is best achieved in partnership with others, and by sharing, interrogating and replicating results.

South African police and provincial governments have already begun to explore ways to embed evidence-based policing in their work. This can be seen in the Western Cape Safety Plan and the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) performance management system. The SAPS’s Strategic Plan 2020-2025 also foregrounds the importance of ‘innovative policing’ driven by research, shared practices and new ideas – a firm foundation for evidence-based policing.

One of the many benefits of evidence-based policing is that it gives senior police and their frontline officers a toolbox from which they can select interventions most likely to work. This can in turn improve officer motivation and earn the trust of communities.

Evidence-based practices are central to South Africa’s overall governance philosophy. They are embedded in the National Development Plan and White Papers on Policing and Safety and Security. But these practices are yet to filter down to station-level policing.

The medical community’s response to COVID-19 shows how much can be learnt in the face of immense pressure and resource constraints. For police, the focus now is on maintaining order, health and well-being during the crisis. But once it’s over, they may be able to take something positive from the way doctors and scientists are fighting the pandemic – with reason, data and evidence.

Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS

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