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Home > Research & Publications > Measuring the Performance of Criminal Justice Systems > Indicators in Development: Safety and Justice > Indicators Under Development > Country-Led Indicators > Sense of Safety
The belief that crime reinforces poverty and otherwise thwarts human development is so widely accepted today that governments and development agencies around the world are trying to produce more useful and reliable measures of public safety. Public safety is not the obverse of crime, and yet the number of recorded crimes along with traffic fatalities may be the only component of public safety for which some governments regularly report information. At the same time, the number of crimes recorded by the police is an unreliable measure of the incidence of crime as well as the prevalence of other unlawful behavior that compromises public safety. How, then, should we measure public safety? And how might government officials in the justice sector measure their contribution to public safety?
One tool for measuring public safety that is common in the Global North and becoming more familiar in the Global South is the victimization survey. Victimization surveys, as we describe in a forthcoming paper, constructively measure public safety when designed as a supplement to other information about crime and violence that is regularly collected by governments and when the responses uncover sources of insecurity and injustice that can be relieved. Victimizations surveys are expensive, though, with long gestation and implementation periods and results that are rarely delivered in time frames and formats that suit public officials. More often than not, victimization surveys deliver news that embarrasses officials responsible for crime, justice, and public safety.
A different approach is to treat crime and public safety as a composite of social problems that can be measured discretely, addressed at the source, and perhaps prevented by governments working with civil society and the support of development agencies. Many development institutions are measuring the incidence of violent crime, especially homicides committed with guns. Others are focused on domestic violence, human trafficking, or even organized crime, such as corporate fraud and money laundering. These approaches to measuring crime are more aligned with the capacity of states and civil society to provide solutions. But they require better and shared information systems, and leave unanswered the larger question of how best to measure “public safety.”
The Justice Sector Coordination Office (JSCO) in Sierra Leone has been administering surveys of residents across the country for several years now to gauge their experiences and perceptions of policing and public safety. The results show just how volatile perceptions of safety are and how difficult it is to measure them reliably, with 15 percent of residents saying they feel “very safe” in one year, 30 percent in the following year, and just 8 percent two years later.
The same volatility affects generalized perceptions of the incidence of crime in society, making some responses unreliable sources of indicators for “sense of safety” or “access to justice.” But we know that perceptions of the quality of police services and levels of respectful treatment of residents by the police are strongly associated with experiences of the response to reports of crime, an experience that the justice system in Sierra Leone can shape directly. The Harvard team and staff in the JSCO are now trying to disaggregate the data in order to make the problem of safety susceptible to intervention and control. Because of the Attorney General’s interest in reducing Sex and Gender Based Violence, we are focusing on sexual assault.
More than two-thirds of survey respondents in Sierra Leone that said they had been victims of a crime in the past two years say they reported the incident to the police. An ever higher portion of victims of sexual assault (75%) say they reported the incident to the police. Levels of satisfaction with the police response to such reports varied greatly by offense – from a high of 40% of victims of theft “very satisfied” with the response to a low of 10% for victims of sexual assault, as the chart below shows.
These figures indicate that police are satisfactorily helping some victims of crime. When they do so, moreover, they appear to boost confidence in police and justice in general. By improving the quality of the response to reports of sexual violence, then, the justice system in Sierra Leone could strengthen overall perceptions of the work of the police. To figure out where additional effort is most likely to have this effect, we need to know where reports of victimization for sexual assault are lowest, and how satisfaction varies by district. The survey was too small to permit this analysis, so we hope to build that knowledge with local police officers and their own information systems.
Research tools such as public perception surveys can provoke the design and use of indicators when they investigate relationships over which government officials or others have some control. Only some surveys do this, however, and few are designed to supplement administrative data, which can make their results easier to incorporate into performance evaluation and other routine management systems. A forthcoming paper on the role of surveys in indicator development describes ways to manage the risks and limitations of perception surveys and suggests ways to increase their compatibility with administrative data and be used by government officials on a recurring basis.