Database set to boost South Africa's crime fight

August 6, 1999


South Africa is notorious for its lawlessness - more than 20,000 people die violently from crime each year in a land with a murder rate nine times the global average.

Now the fight against violent crime is being aided by a R4.5 million (Pounds 461,000) initiative at Rhodes University's MTN Centre for Crime Prevention Studies - the Serious Criminal Apprehension Project (Secap). Mark Welman, the centre's director, believes the project has the potential to reduce serious crime levels in South Africa by 20 per cent.

Investigative psychologists at the university are working with South African supercop Micki Pistorius, one of the world's most successful "hunters" of serial killers and formerly a University of Pretoria lecturer. They are also setting up an FBI-style criminal identification database (CID) of violent offenders.

The work at Rhodes is being supported by British investigator David Canter, of the Centre for Investigative Psychology (CIP) at the University of Liverpool. CIP is providing the database software, which Dr Welman and his team are developing and modifying for local needs, as well as providing advice and training.

Before deputy director Pistorius joined the police, South Africa did not realise it had a serial offence problem.

"The police hardly knew about serial killing and rape, and were not trained to think psychologically," Dr Welman said. In five years Ms Pistorius has trained hundreds of detectives to track down serial offenders.

Earlier this year she was lauded by the FBI for capturing Samuel Sedina, labelled the "Capitol Hill killer", just 48 hours after establishing that there was a serial murderer at work in Pretoria's city centre.

Rhodes University "will do research for us, and since we don't have a criminal database in South Africa, they will set one up for us. It will not only be a quantitative but also a qualitative database, which helps us ascertain what a criminal is feeling and thinking, and why he is committing crimes," she said.

"South African detectives, compared with those in the developed world, have an incredibly high workload. They work with up to 40 serious dockets at a time. While high-profile murders in the UK can involve hundreds of policemen and women, in this country it is difficult to put four to five detectives on such a case," Dr Welman said.

Using an investigative curriculum called Sherlock, Rhodes will train detectives to ask the right questions so that correct and complete data is available for analysis. Ms Pistorius said: "They will also provide psychology and profile training for detectives, while our Investigative Psychology Unit in Pretoria focuses on training in investigative policing techniques."

Researchers have been visiting prisons and conducting interviews with serial offenders for several months. "We have started a national database of serial killers and rapists, and are now expanding to include other serious offenders. CID will be able to 'read' a crime scene and link complex behavioural elements to known offenders," Dr Welman said.

A final objective of Secap is to research criminal behaviour in South Africa. Research will also be done into threat analysis, with the latter investigating ways in which victims should respond to different kinds of attacks to minimise the risk of serious harm.

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