Predictive Policing Is The Way To Go For South Africa

The South African Police Services should shift from an investigative paradigm to a preventative paradigm and the failure to shift from the current paradigm could result in ‘paradigm paralysis.’ The South African policing system is highly reactive in that a crime has to occur first before security agencies could galvanise into action; detectives only start working after a crime has been committed.  If you told detectives to use the data at their disposal to detect crime before it is committed; you would be labelled as ‘insane’ because to them detective work takes a ‘rear view mirror’ approach. Criminals are always ahead of the ‘game’ because they know that their adversaries are always playing the ‘chasing game’.  It is this reactivity that impact negatively on the credibility of our police service. The hunter is perpetually being hunted and it is high time that the hunter enacted his or her own role for the collective good of safety and security in this country!

Classical economists have always argued that human behaviour is not always predictable. Little did these wise economists realise that science could be transformed into predicting human behaviour. Economic scientists have done wonders to keep the world alive, but wonders do not constitute a miracle, and the time has come to admit defeat and to move forward. Simply put, police science today is highly predictive. Shortly before his death, Hitler predicted that the world would be divided into two power blocks – the East and the West. Hitler could not foresee that the policing profession could be tremendously radicalised to an extent of allowing law enforcement agencies to prevent crime before it is committed.

Predictive policing is no longer confined to science and fiction thrillers, predictive policing methods are being adopted across the United States of America to allow law enforcement to proactively manage crime. According to Security Management magazine (2014) Predictive policing is defined as “the application of analytical techniques, particularly quantitative techniques, to identify promising targets for police intervention and prevent or solve crime”. Imagine if you received a call from the police to inform you that they have prevented a burglary at your house and the criminals have been put behind bars; instead of receiving a call from the police to inform you that your house has been broken into and the criminals are on the loose. If this situation goes unbridled, the credibility of the police will be at stake if their paradigm still remain investigative and not predictive.

It is high time that researchers adopted a transdisciplinary approach to do their day to day work. Briefly put, a transdisciplinary means that one has to look at a situation outside one’s discipline. For example, today doctors have opted to what Xolela Mangcu calls “double-loop” solutions; by using genetic tests to predict the future health of their patients before their patients get sick. Mangcu argues that single loop solutions are the equivalent of surface-level explanations, while double-loop thinking go to the underlying solutions. (Sunday Times 27 September 2015).Carson (1999) warned about the narrow-mindedness practitioners of physical medicine.  He argued that they should view themselves not just as providers and protectors of health care but that they should be involved in all contemporary issues that affect the quality of life – mentally, spiritually and physically in society. Similarly, police should not view themselves as investigating crime but they should themselves as crime preventers.

“With the advance of human genomics we are starting to understand each individual risks and the possibilities of individualised treatments and interventions.” Dr Johnny Broomberg, CEO for Discovery, said at the company Health Summit (The Star, 25 September, 2015). Genetic testing empowers one with knowledge about one’s life and channels one to healthy living in order to prevent diseases that could snatch one’s life prematurely. The medical adage that prevention is better than cure stills holds water even today.

We all have heard about cable theft that disturbs the smooth running of traffic on our roads because of dysfunctional traffic lights. This situation leads to accidents, injuries and even deaths. Trains are also affected by cable theft. That result in inordinate delays and irate commuters who take their anger on railway property in that they face a bleak future of dismissals from their employers for late coming. Simply put, cable theft causes systems problems and a double loop solution is required.

Our approach to crime is indisputably single looped. Crime in South Africa could be aptly described as an epidemic or a social problem. Sociologists define a social problem as something that disturbs the smooth running of society. Crime in this country has become a ubiquitous phenomenon; it does not discriminate against people’s social stratification. The crime wave is felt by the middle the low and the high.  Crime also threatens our national security. Crime in South Africa should be prevented by applying scientific methods?

It is cheering to note that one can study crime by using the mathematics that people use to study earthquakes. Dr Jeff Brantingham, professor of anthropology at the University of California argues that the perception that crime is random, is inaccurate. “The truth is, there’s actually a lot of patterning and structure to crime. Even though it seems like a random event from the point of view of that one victim, there is a lot of regularity to it” (Security management, 2015).

Policing in South Africa is generally regarded as a ‘soft profession’ that has to be pursued by people who are ‘academically less fortunate’. Little do people realise that  one could use algorithm to predict two and half times more crime than existing practices when it comes to break ins, car theft, and burglary theft from vehicle. This brings me to the quality of our education. It would education to produce prediction maps for each officer.

The debate about what I call a ‘symmetric economic responsive education’ in South Africa would never abate. Some people feel that our educational institutions are churning out ‘half – baked’ graduates who are irrelevant and inimical to the economy. There is also a school of thought or paradigm that advocates technical skills over ‘soft skills’.  The words of W.E.B du Bois which he uttered in 1903 are worth recalling: “…Now the training of (human beings) is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of training…we shall develop money-makers, but not necessarily (human beings); if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans, but not in nature (human beings). (Human beings), we shall only have only as we make (person) hood the object of the work of the schools…” Truth be told, as never before, South Africa needs technical education to deal with a plethora of challenges, including crime. We need technically oriented human beings!

Finally, we need to apply scientific principles to deal with crime because crime is inimical to safety and security. If science is able to discover water on Mars, what would stop us from effecting predictive policing solutions which are double looped? The policing system should be an amalgam of courage, flair, enterprise and not reckless and brash judgement. A predictive approach should be adopted to suit the palates of the South African public this could only happen if our men and women in blue ran through the entire gamut of the policing profession.

Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula
Mabila Mathebula is a freelance author for and writes in his personal capacity.
He is active in a number of professional bodies, primarily the Association of Researchers in Construction Safety, Health, and Well-Being , and he was a member of the Transport Research Board (TRB) with its Head Office based in Washington DC, USA. In 2005 he was trained by BST; a USA based safety consulting firm as a Behavioral Based Safety Consultant.
Mabila’s qualifications includes a BA (Vista University), BA (Hon) (UNISA), MBA (Milpark Business School), and a Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management (Cranefield College of Project Management). He is currently completing his PhD in Construction Management (NMMU).
His professional career path includes working as Accounting Teacher at Pace College in Soweto, News Producer at SABC in Polokwane, HR Manager and Safety Manager at Transnet Freight Rail in Johannesburg. In 2002 he ventured into the world of consulting as a SHE (Safety, Health and Environment) consultant; exchanging security for freedom. He now works as a Senior Researcher at the Railway Safety Regulator in Gauteng (South Africa).
Mabila has spoken at numerous international conferences on four continents, and is a regular contributor to various professional journals, newspapers and magazines and has been instrumental towards the establishment of the Railway Safety Regulator in South Africa and has written a lot on railway safety. He is also a co-author of a Life Orientation Grade 11 text book.
His preferred quote is: “We are unequal in what we know, but equal in our infinite ignorance”.

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