OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | Time to get ‘smart on crime’

2019-04-17 10:11

Getting ‘tough on crime’ is a challenge for a government with a stretched budget such as ours. The brutal reality is that we must get ‘smart on crime’ instead, writes Ralph Clark.

Rape, murder, robbery, gang and gun violence are a daily occurrence for many in South Africa – to the point that too many of us have become desensitised. And police leadership are rightly concerned about their ability to deliver critical services to all South Africans after nationwide stayaways apparently in protest against employment issues – which leave our communities and children with even fewer police men and women protecting our communities and children. 

People, especially politicians, urge that we need to get “tough on crime”. While true, exactly how can government get tough on crime in this economic climate with a stretched budget? The brutal reality is that we must get “smart on crime” instead. 

In the medium term, the latest national police budget allocates over 75% to the compensation of employees. Boots on the ground are important but the return on this investment must be carefully considered: despite significant investment in expenditure on policing over the last decade, there is no clear evidence that this has lowered the crime rate. In fact, between 2017 and 2018, the murder rate in South Africa increased by over 6%.

But smart technology can help government achieve more with less in the war on crime.

A prime example is DNA profiling and analysis – almost unheard of twenty years ago – now a center point of many investigations and convictions. Responsibly deployed and judiciously used, CCTV footage too can be relied upon to provide key evidence in prosecutions, efficient investigations and the arrest of perpetrators.

Internationally, ‘pre-crime’ data analytics is increasingly used to proactively prevent crime (and would-be criminals) before it takes place through predictive policing. This isn’t limited to the realm of science fiction movies; rather, algorithms operate similarly to an advanced risk mapping tool. They are able to produce sophisticated risk assessments and analyse information from various sources (some potentially real-time – localized electricity blackouts for example), to predict a potential pattern of crime. Police can use this information to plan proactive responses. Its most plain practical application would mean targeted, visible policing and patrols to mitigate against the possibility of crime occurring.  

READ: SAPS has the tools to improve public safety. So why is crime still soaring?

Gunshot detection is another example of a tech-driven solution to fighting crime. This tech can provide real-time digital alerts to authorities of a gunshot’s location, allowing precise and targeted response within less than a minute from discharge. This opportunity to apprehend the shooter and – more importantly – provide immediate trauma care to save shooting victims’ lives is invaluable. The comprehensive data set can also be used in pre-policing algorithms to proactively and better combat crime before it’s perpetrated.  

And this tech is delivering positive results. In cities like Milwaukee, Denver and Chicago, Crime Gun Intelligence Centres (CGICs) have a noticeable impact on the efficient investigation of gun-related crimes. Information from various surveillance technologies is merged to produce detailed and accurate reports for the prevention, enforcement, and prosecution of gun crimes.

It is a combined effort. The information collated from the various technologies provides well trained, properly resourced police departments and prosecutors with the information they need to anticipate, respond to and prevent crime towards a safer society. The experience of these CGICs and the associated improvement in crime statistics shows that technological investment in policing works.

In Denver, it is estimated that approximately 95% of eligible cases referred to the local CGIC result in either solving the case or identifying suspects. In Milwaukee too, a city that has struggled with containing the scourge of gun-related crime, trends show that the combined use of CCTV footage and gunshot detection technology is having a marked impact on the fight against gun-related crime.

This technology isn’t beyond our reach. We are already seeing the emergence of something similar in South Africa. In Cape Town, the City’s Strategic Surveillance Unit is using CCTV in conjunction with gunshot tech in the fight against gun crime, allowing for better identification and tracking of criminal suspects. It’s delivering results too – with many arrests and at least one conviction thanks to this collaboration between smart technology-driven solutions and traditional policing methods. 

Whilst I’m confident that South African authorities already model and plan their deployments, I’m even more convinced that these can be responsibly and impactfully enhanced with predictive policing technology. Together with real-time tech input, and extensive data analytics, this rich information will provide authorities with a more detailed and precise planning solution to deliver tangible results.

Implementing a crime prevention strategy requires simple, cost effective yet impactful changes. Additional human resources are certainly part of the answer, but it’s going to require more than traditional methods alone. Simply placing more police men and women on the street is neither a sustainable, nor effective solution. Policing must invest in catalytic, targeted and force-multiplying technological solutions if we’re to realistically stem the ever-rising tide of violent crime.

ALSO READ: Politics, internal squabbles cripple SAPS Crime Intelligence

The time has come for a shift. We need to empower our committed police men and women with the additional ammunition they need to prevent, respond to, investigate and prosecute crime more efficiently and effectively. 

It goes without saying that these technologies should not, and cannot, replace traditional police processes and activities. For the foreseeable future, it will always be a police man or woman that places handcuffs on a suspect. But coupled with existing technological infrastructure, emerging tech can provide authorities with the smart advantage that they sorely need.

– Clark is the CEO of Shotspotter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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