Winter Thaws Can Bring Violent Crime Spikes: Study

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Criminologists have long known crime rates go up in the summer, but new research published in the journal GeoHealth also connects sharp climate changes in cold weather to higher crime rates.

Researchers looked at the specific impact weather has on violent crime during the winter months, when crime rates generally are thought to drop. They found that the relationship between temperature and violent crime was strong in the winter as well as the summer.

“As an example, it’s usually 20 degrees in Boulder, [but a rise on a] January day to 40 degrees will have more of a difference on peoples’ behaviors than going, say, 60 degrees to 80 degrees in the summer,” said lead researcher Ryan D. Harp, a PhD student at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The study, entitled “The Influence of Interannual Climate Variability on Regional Violent Crime Rates in the United States,” gathered crime data from the Uniform Crime Reporting program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and collected climate data form the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, part of the National Oceanic Administration.

Temperature’s effect on crime makes “it pretty easy to draw a link between our paper and climate change, and that’s what we’re going to do in the next step of our research,” Harp said in a separate interview with The Crime Report.

The researchers examined climate and crime data over a 30-year period, and studied five defined U.S. regions with similar climates—Northeast, Southeast, South Central, West and Midwest.

“The relationship between temperature and violent crime is mainly a wintertime phenomenon, and lends support to the Routine Activities Theory as the primary causal mechanism,” the study said.

The Routine Activity Theory says crime is relatively unaffected by social causes such as poverty, inequality and unemployment.

“The big takeaway might be that climate impacts our lives in a lot more ways than we typically discuss, including our health and our safety,” Harp added.

The study was co-authored by Kristopher B. Karnauskas, associate professor in the Oceans and Climate Lab at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The complete study is available here.

Lauren Sonnenberg is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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