Missing Data and the Failing Battle Against Crime

Latin America and the Caribbean need much better data in their battle against crime

Over one weekend in June, a fierce gun battle between rival drug gangs and the security services spread from the hilly favelas to the shore near Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf Mountain. Cable cars services were suspended and seven people were killed. Still perhaps the biggest shock to Brazilians came three days later when the government released an unflinching report detailing rising homicides and crime’s soaring costs.

The report revealed that despite ever greater spending to combat crime over the last two decades, the overall cost of criminal activity—including everything from security costs to lost productivity—more than doubled from 113 billion reais (around US$30 billion) in 1996 to 285 billion reais (US$76.6 billion) in 2015, or 4.38% of Brazil’s GDP. Homicides rose to 30 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, the highest level ever.

Many reforms are needed. But better data, the report says, is key to fighting the scourge. “In a context of budget limitations,  it’s essential to base future security policies on cost-benefit analyses,” it says. “Increasing efficiency in public security policy depends on establishing  evidence-based security policy.”

Evidence-based policies are key

It is a call heard throughout Latin America and the Caribbean—the most violent region of the world with a homicide rate four times the world average. Latin America and the Caribbean contains 43 of the 50 of the world’s deadliest cities and loses around 3.5% of its GDP to crime and violence, roughly twice the amount seen in developed countries. Like Brazil, many, if not most, countries in the region are aware they need to collect better data and use it more effectively. They know they need evidence-based policies if they are to have a fighting chance at containing the epidemic.

The potential of data for combatting crime will be showcased by  economists and social scientists at the annual meeting of LACEA’s America Latina Crime and Policy Network at the IDB’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. September 6-7.

An essential point is that developed countries not only understand the importance of data,  they have been employing data, including Geographic Information Systems, for more than a decade.  So-called hot-spot policing, the targeting of police personnel and resources to small geographic areas where crime concentrates, has become state-of-the-art. New approaches involving micro-targeting, are increasingly gaining traction, based on the notion that crime is often limited to extremely tiny units. That is to say, police need not necessarily focus on neighborhoods. Most crime will occur in particular fragments of blocks or street segments: a rough street corner, a troubled housing project or a bustling tourist site.

Distrust in the police harms the crime battle

But in order to pin-point resources in this way and to know what strategies really work, police forces need highly refined data. That, as discussed in a recent IDB study, The Welfare Costs of Crime and Violence in Latin America, is sorely lacking in the region. Administrative data held by the police, including citizen complaints, are hobbled by the common fear that the police will either do nothing or, at worst, report complaints to the criminals themselves. Trust in the region’s police forces is among the lowest in the world. Of 60 countries covered in the 2010-2014 World Values Survey. Mexico ranked 56th; Trinidad and Tobago, 57th; Peru 58th; and Argentina, 59th in faith in the police.

Meanwhile, anonymous victimization surveys, which are carried out under state auspices and include much more detailed information about individuals and households, fall short too. They are mostly carried out at the provincial or national level because of their expense, and so lack neighborhood detail, and they have been weakened by bureaucratic and political problems. According to a recent blog, since the early 2000s, only Chile and Mexico among countries in the region have conducted representative, annual victimization surveys.

Data tells us what works in crime prevention

All this means that in a time of real fiscal shortfalls, nations in the region are unable to take advantage of the most efficient, scientific and cost-saving ways of fighting crime. Moreover, when different approaches to crime prevention are tried, there are few impact studies to find out what really works.

Brazil’s detailed, ambitious report recommends focusing on violent crime and less on non-violent offenses. But each nation in the region will have to find its own recipe and everyone could benefit from better data.

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The Author

Steven Ambrus

Steven Ambrus worked as a correspondent for US and European media during two decades in Latin America, covering politics, education, the environment and other issues. He currently works in the communications and publications unit of the Research Department at the IDB.

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