Malawi: No one knows whether crime is rising or falling, not even the police

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Because the police do not collect or publish reliable crime statistics, citizens are left in the dark.

In 2020, Malawi was featured in the New York Times series, “The World Through a Lens”, which features photos of “some of the most beautiful and intriguing places on our planet”. As a local, I was happy to see Malawi showcased in this way. The piece was generally innocuous; several friends shared the accompanying photos on social media. I was, however, surprised by one line, particularly from a writer who claimed to be “beware of clichés and generalizations” – namely that since the author’s first visit 14 years earlier, “crime has risen dramatically “.

As a lawyer seconded to the Malawi Police Service, I spent over three years listening to police officers, visiting police cells and reading local crime research and newspapers. There is no reliable evidence that crime increased between 2006 and 2020. In fact, there is little evidence either way. The Malawi Police Service does not collect reliable crime statistics and does not make this information public, or a combination of both.

What we know

We know some things. In 2006, Malawi’s homicide rate per 100,000 population was 6.3. In 2012, the latest year for which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has data, the rate was 1.8, a drop of more than 70%. We also know that at the Lilongwe Model Police Station, the number of arrests decreased each year from 2017 to 2020. This trend did not last until 2021, largely due to arrests for violations of Covid-19 regulations and “sweep” exercises. Finally, we can see from data collected by the World Prison Brief that the number of inmates relative to population in Malawi peaked in 2006.

More circumstantial evidence comes from Malawi’s responses to Afrobarometer surveys, some of which seem to point in opposite directions. On the one hand, the proportion of Malawian respondents who rank crime and safety among the country’s top three priorities has decreased slightly, from 7% in 2005 to 6.3% in 2019.

On the other hand, there was a nine point increase between 2005 and 2014 in both people saying that something had been stolen from their home in the past year and respondents saying that a member of their family had been physically assaulted in the previous 12 months. Additionally, the proportion of Malawians who said the government was fairly or very bad at reducing crime rose from 46% in 2005 to 63.3% in 2019.

The police themselves reveal crime figures when it serves their institutional interests. They share quarterly crime figures year over year when it suits them. This type of data is, at best, inadequate for identifying trends, and Malawian police rarely consider possible reasons for changes such as population growth, political environment or under-reporting of crime. According to the 2004-2005 census, the reporting rate for assault was only 17%; The 2012 Afrobarometer survey found a reporting rate for all crimes of 36%. And year-over-year or quarter-over-quarter figures are, at best, insufficient.

The importance of being transparent

As noted in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, “evidence points to a link between transparency and citizens’ perceptions of government corruption.” The latter is bred in Malawi. President Lazarus Chakwera has vowed to change that and “end the era of government secrecy and usher in the dawn of government accountability”, in part by bringing into force the Access to Information Act 2017. ‘information. But the Malawi Police Service also has a role to play.

In the spirit of transparency and to ensure accountability, the police should regularly share and publish information on: 1) the demographics and size of the police service, including the number of officers leaving the force each year and the various reasons why; 2) the number and type of complaints received against agents and the handling of these complaints; 3) information on the use of force by the police, at least each time bullets or tear gas are discharged; 4) comprehensive statistics on reports made to police, arrests made, cases prosecuted, bailed and diverted, and number of persons convicted; and 5) the number of stops made, tickets issued and money collected.

To ensure accurate reporting and to hold government and officials accountable, Malawi’s Constitution and Access to Information Act state that governments and institutions must be transparent. Malawians deserve more than piecemeal data and circumstantial evidence. They deserve to know how much crime is present in the country as well as what and how their police act to ensure public safety. They deserve to know, among other things, whether crime is actually up or down.

Tyler Holmes is a Program Advocate seconded to the Malawi Police Service.

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