Will the Virus-Related Decline in Crime Continue?

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Photo by Neury Luciano via Flickr

Social distancing not only promises to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, but could result in a significant reduction in many forms of criminal behavior, according to two Italian researchers.

Early results from two California cities suggest a nearly 40 percent decrease in daily crime, offering a “glimpse of [a] positive outcome for the community during the outbreak,” the study claims.

The researchers, Soheil Shayegh of European Institute on Economy and the Environment (EIEE) and Maurizio Malpede, of Bocconi University, cautioned that they were awaiting data from a broader sampling of U.S. cities.

But an analysis of daily crime reports from San Francisco and Oakland found that most types of crime had declined sharply since Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a state-wide stay at home advisory in early March.

Shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders have affected more than two-thirds of Americans. They are subject to widely varying types of enforcement — from police warnings to fines and arrests, depending on the jurisdiction.  But the two California cities offered a perfect microcosm to study crime rate changes, since local officials there imposed some of the nation’s “strictest public health orders,” the researchers said.

To conduct the research, Shayegh and Malpede looked at daily incident reports provided by the San Francisco Police Department. The Oakland Police department only provided data spanning the last 90 days, therefore, the researchers only used that data for “demonstration and comparison to our main results from San Francisco.”

Daily San Francisco crime data from May 1, 2018, until March 16 of this year were used as the “pre-policy,” or pre-quarantine data; everything after until March 28, was used as post-policy data.

Generally, theft and homicide have fallen sharply, and the researchers predicted the rates would continue to decline for the duration of the quarantine period.

“Theft and homicide crimes have dropped by 46 percent and 35 percent [respectively], compared to the historical trend in the same period,” the authors wrote.

“As few people are driving on the roads, the traffic accidents too have fallen by about 44 percent in the same period.”

Similar initial data has been reported by other U.S. police departments. In Los Angeles, property crime was down 18 percent in the four weeks ending March 21 from the previous four weeks.

Calls for police services in Chicago have declined 30 percent for the month, and crime in New York City fell almost 25 percent in the week ended March 22, compared with the week before.

In Los Angeles, the number of burglaries and theft from motor vehicles, the most prevalent crime, was down 24 percent.

In Chicago, there’s been a significant reduction in vehicle and pedestrian stops by police.

But as the researchers admit, crime rates have not gone down in every category.

New York City, for example, has seen a sharp 75 percent spike in commercial burglaries since Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency March 12, even as other types of crime have gone down.

And there have increases in domestic violence cases across the country.

In both San Francisco and Oakland, “domestic violence incidents show no sign of reduction from our early observations,” the researchers found.

Moreover, the researchers observe that as more people in large cities are forced to work remotely, criminal organizations….are turning to cyberspace “for a wide range of criminal activities from fraud and forgery in procurement of much-needed medical equipment to organized property crime by impersonation of representatives of public authorities.”

And while a decrease in overall daily crime is a positive development, it’s not clear whether it will continue if the quarantine continues well past spring.

Soheil Shayegh is a Junior Research Scientist at the European Institute on Economics and the Environment (EIEE) in Milan, Italy. Maurizio Malpede is a Research Fellow at the GREEN Centre for Geography, Resources and the Environment, and a Visiting Junior Researcher at the Laboratory for Effective Anti-Poverty Policies (LEAP) at Bocconi University in Milan.

Their complete study can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report

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