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Crime rates and pandemic

Crime rates and patterns may have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, writes Rob Mawby. He’s Visiting Professor of Rural Criminology, at Harper Adams University, based in Shropshire.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound affect on the health of nations, crucially on mortality rates, on the health and care systems and on the economy. But it has also impacted on fundamental aspects of our life: how we behave as individuals and as social animals. We have changed our behaviour because: some people’s activities will be directly affected by the virus, eg. they become ill or caring for family members who are ill; some activities will be affected by people’s fear of becoming infected; and other people’s activities will be influenced by government actions, eg. school, amenity or business closures, restrictions on travel etc.

Of course there will be variations between countries in terms of government strategies to combat the pandemic, and citizens’ willingness and ability to change their behaviours. That said, we tend to stop doing many things we usually do, but at the same time do other things, like staying at home or using the internet, more than before.

And this has profound and widespread impacts on society … possibly, for example, leading to a baby-boom and increasing the birth rate! It is therefore unsurprising that it might affect crime: both the propensity to commit crime and the risk of being a victim.

A lot of criminologists explain crime in terms of the context or situation in which it occurs, rather than focusing just on who commits crime. That is, they are more concerned with protecting particular targets, with deterring people from offending in specific places, and they draw on theories of what makes specific targets seem vulnerable or attractive to offenders, and argue that if you prevent potential offenders from committing specific crimes, this will reduce the crime rate. This raises the question of displacement (eg. do they stop offending or just commit different offences instead), that I’ll come back to later. At this stage, though, it’s important to stress that these criminologists assume that many potential offenders who have their opportunity to offend reduced will not find an alternative crime or victim.

These criminologists vary in emphasis, including: routine activity theorists, rational choice theorists, and crime pattern theorists. But they essentially focus on opportunities: offenders’ decisions to target specific property or persons, based on their knowledge and awareness of the target. For example:

– Why do offenders opt to commit, for example, robbery rather than an alternative offence?
– Why do they target businesses rather than individuals, or vice versa?
– Why do they target a particular business, property, individual etc?
– How do they decide on the ideal time to commit the offence?

And in addressing questions like these, they focus on what we might call the crime triangle – three aspects of the situation that make a crime more or less likely: an available victim; a motivated offender; and a lack of protection or guardianship, by police, other witnesses etc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the balance between these three dimensions:

– Availability of victims: People are going out in public less often, and since entertainment venues are closed, they are especially less likely to go out after dark. They are less likely to use public transport and more likely to ride a bicycle or (maybe) walk). This suggests that less victims will be available to steal from (eg. pick-pocketing that works best in crowds), and public disorder offences linked to alcohol misuse will be lower.

– Motivated offenders: Potential offenders may be less likely to go out, especially with co-offenders, and when they do they may be more conspicuous

– Potential Guardianship: There may be more police around if other policing duties are reduced and if the police are actively enforcing the lockdown. Most importantly though, are changes to self-guardianship and guardianship by passers-by, neighbours etc. If people spend more time at home, then their home is better protected from burglars (who prefer empty houses), and they are better able to see what’s going on next door or in the street (the nosy neighbour is the good neighbour). On the other hand, there are less ‘guardians’ around in public places: less people in the city centre means less potential victims and less motivated offenders, but also less available witnesses/guardians. And if factories, shops and offices are shut, they are potentially ‘unguarded’ 24/7.

What sorts of changes might we expect?

So in many respects we would anticipate less crime. Take some offence types as examples:

– Burglary. Since homes are occupied for most of the day and night, we might expect residential burglaries to decline because burglars tend to target empty property. But burglars who operate when householders are at home (distraction burglars) may be more active, using the emergency as an excuse to gain access. And where shops, offices, schools etc are closed for longer periods, we might expect burglaries of businesses, trading estates, schools and other public buildings to increase. These offences traditionally took place at night but may now become more common in the daytime.

– Theft from the person/robbery. If less people are on the streets, these crimes may decrease. This is especially so for theft from the person that requires stealth (pickpockets prefer crowds), but lack of other pedestrians and traffic may mean bag-snatching and robbery from the person by force will increase. And if people rely on more home deliveries, robbery from delivery vehicles may increase.

– Other thefts. Less use of cars may mean car-related crime is reduced, but thefts of bicycles may rise, and where social distancing means good are delivered and left on doorsteps, thefts from doorsteps may increase.

-Violence. In general, violence in public areas would be expected to fall, unless there are conflicts over shortages or social distancing around food shops, beaches etc. However, with more people confined at home, domestic violence would be expected to increase, involving not just women but also children and elderly parents.

– Phone and Internet-based crimes. With people confined at home, dependence on the internet has risen. Correspondingly, frauds through phone and internet will increase. These may be directly related to the pandemic (eg. scams over selling face masks or miracle cures), indirectly related to the pandemic (eg. where customers are more dependent on purchasing goods online and are conned, where criminals offer government grants and loans, or where conmen prey on lonely women), or unrelated. Additionally, with schools closed and many working from home, children are more likely to be using the internet unsupervised, putting them more at danger.

Finally, to take a rather different example that Mine, Zarina Vakhitova and I are researching at the moment, tourism-related crime…There is a close relationship between tourism and crime: resorts tend to have high crime rates; tourists are frequently targeted by criminals; and some tourists commit offences, particularly associated with public disorder. But tourism has declined dramatically. In Turkey, for example, tourist arrivals from abroad fell by two thirds in March and to under 10pc of normal in April.

So we expect the fall in the crime rate to be especially pronounced in tourist resorts. But – there is always a but – there will be exceptions. If criminals are locals and short of cash, they may target different victims/facilities. For example, if there are less tourists for local criminals to steal from, local residents may be more at risk. And if foreigners own second homes in the area, and these are empty, these may be targeted.

What’s the evidence?

There are three problems with proving any of this. Firstly, official statistics are dependent on victims reporting crimes and the police recording them, and in many cases, like domestic violence, they may not be reliable. Secondly, up-to-date criminal statistics may be unavailable. This will vary according to the country – my impression is that the production of crime statistics in Turkey is rather slow! And in the UK, ironically, where small area statistics are usually readily accessible, staff have been redeployed temporarily so these statistics are not being published online. Thirdly, statistics are sometimes not detailed enough to allow us to identify subtle changes. For example, where I suggested domestic burglaries may decrease and break-ins to business premises increase, in many countries these are all lumped in together so it is practically impossible to demonstrate trends.

That said, there is some evidence from the USA and UK. In the USA, Ashby (2020) has looked at weekly police crime records for eight cities (Austin, Boston, Chicago Los Angeles Louisville, Memphis, Nashville and San Francisco), focusing on four offence groups (serious violence, ie. homicides and aggravated assaults, in public places, serious violence in residences, residential burglary and personal robbery. He found that:

– Serious violence in public places had declined in some, but not all, the cities.
– Serious violence in residences had not risen.
– Residential burglary had declined in some, but not all, the cities.
– Personal robbery had stayed broadly the same.

Other, less systematic, evidence from the UK suggests a decline in violence in public places and residential burglary. While there is no clear pattern for violence in private residences, at least according to police figures, calls to women’s refuges and helplines has risen dramatically, suggesting that women attacked in their homes may feel trapped and unwilling to involve the police but more likely to seek alternative solutions. There has also been an increase in domestic homicides. And UK and EUROPOL data suggest an increase in online child abuse. Impressionistic evidence also suggests a rise in internet fraud and fraud linked to false claims by shadow businesses applying for government grants.

Finally, here in the south west of England, one of the country’s main tourist centres, we have some evidence that while crime generally declined in March, April and May, this fall was especially pronounced in the main tourist hotspots.

So are we safer?

I’ve suggest that during the lockdown, some offence types have fallen while others have risen. Whether this has resulted in an overall decrease in crime can be considered from three perspectives;

– Some would-be offenders find the opportunity to commit their crime-of-choice restricted, and so do not offend.
– Some would-be offenders find the opportunity to commit their crime-of-choice restricted, so offend in different ways (this is known as ‘crime displacement’).
– Some people who would not otherwise have offended, take advantage of the new opportunities available during the lockdown and commit crimes.

The first perspective assumes that offenders are relatively specialised in their criminal behaviour. This is less likely among younger offenders and will vary according to offence type. The second perspective assumes that offenders are relatively flexible in their choice of crime. It is limited by offenders’ limited skill-sets.

The third perspective assumes that there is a pool of potential criminals who are deterred from offending under normal conditions but due to temptation, financial hardship, stress etc. (all of which may be more evident at this time) offend when circumstances change.

While the first perspective is true of some offenders, clearly perspectives 2 and 3 also apply in the current situation. I’d suggest that this change in offending patterns can apply on at least five levels, or SPOTT.

– Spatial Context: For example, crimes in real space may be reduced but crimes in virtual space (ie. online or phone calls) may increase. Since these require different skill-sets, the increases will generally be by different offenders.
– Physical Location: For example: violence committed in the home rather than in public places, in some cases by the same offenders but against mainly different victims; and a shift towards even more locally-based crime, as the lockdown restricts travelling distances.
– Offence Type: For example household burglary may be reduced and corporate burglary increase, probably due to displacement.
– Technique: For example, burglary: if homes are more likely to be occupied, access may be gained by subterfuge rather than forced entry. Since such ‘distraction burglaries’ are often carried out by specialists and are unlike other burglaries, the increases will generally be due different offenders.
– Target: As noted above, this includes a shift from household burglary to break-ins to offices, shops etc. Additionally, in holiday resorts where there are less tourists there may be a shift towards breaking into unoccupied holiday accommodation, especially second homes.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, I’d argue that the pattern of crime has changed during the coronavirus pandemic and that in general there has been an overall decrease in crime. But these changes will vary between countries depending on different governments’ responses to the pandemic. This raises two final questions I’d like to raise:

Firstly, how far have policing strategies been adjusted to respond to changing crime patterns?

Secondly, how will crime readjust after the pandemic: will there be a ‘new normal’ for crime too?

References

Ashby, M. (2020) ‘Initial evidence on the relationship between coronavirus and crime’, preprint accessed at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/ep87s/.

A series of Special Papers on COVID19 and crime have been posted by UCL, accessed at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/jill-dando-institute/research/covid-19-special-papers.


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