Across the country, we’ve seen massive change brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including a dramatic drop in the overall crime rate.
David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania law and economics professor, has been keeping an eye on numbers across the country. The website he created details what’s been happening with crime in more than 25 major cities during the COVID-19 crisis.
“People have reacted to the pandemic in all sorts of ways in decreasing economic activity,” Abrams says. “They stopped going to work, they stopped driving their car. They stopped walking around the city, and crime also stopped.”
Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago all have witnessed a drop of more than 30%. Violent crimes such as aggravated assaults and robberies also fell substantially.
That wasn’t true of homicides and shootings though. In some cities, there’s a troubling rise compared with last year.
Shauntavius Sims, 35, lives in a Chicago neighborhood that has been plagued by gun violence. That reality makes the news of an overall drop in the crime rate irrelevant.
“Seem like it got worser to me. Just yesterday, I saw it behind my house,” Sims says, as the sounds of firecrackers — not guns — filled the air. “Some boys just came and shot while me and my baby was in the back. Like every day, it’s constantly on the news. Every day, it’s something.”
There has been a surge of homicides over recent violent weekends, and several children have been shooting victims. It’s that type of tragic crime news in Chicago and other cities such as Houston, Cincinnati and Fresno, Calif., that’s gotten the most attention.
Even though the numbers are tragic, Abrams says it’s difficult to determine any trend in murder or other crimes over a short time span. He says for a more accurate statistical count it takes comparing what takes place from year to year over a longer period of time.
“When you look at the homicide data and compare it to levels over the past five years,” he says, “we didn’t see any significant impact because of the pandemic.”
Even so, University of Chicago professor Jens Ludwig, the head of the university’s Crime Lab, says it’s a big puzzle why shootings and murders haven’t dropped while other crimes have.
“Murders make up far less than 1% of the crimes in these cities,” Ludwig says, “but murder is so damaging to families and communities, and I don’t think we have a great understanding of why they haven’t declined.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot agrees it is complicated. She says in some ways the pandemic created the perfect storm by compelling people to stay inside, but it also stymied the normal operations of jails and courts. More people intent on causing harm may be out on the streets instead of in the criminal justice system. She adds the underlying causes of violence are also factors.
“That’s poverty, lack of hope, despair, not enough access to the things that build healthy and strong families and communities,” Lightfoot says. “And we have way too many guns on the street.”
There’s more positive news when it comes to drug crimes. They plummeted by more than 60% compared with previous years, according to Abrams’ website.
Arizona State University criminologist Ojmarrh Mitchell says there are several reasons why.
“First, drug crimes are measured by arrests, not citizen reports to police,” Mitchell says. “During a pandemic, police aren’t necessarily employing the pro-active police tactics and practices that typically result in discovering drugs.”
The pandemic seems to be driving a lot of the reduction in crime, including home burglaries. But in commercial spaces, there’s been a bump in burglaries, up by almost 30% on average across the cities examined.
Abrams says there was also a dramatic jump in car theft in Philadelphia, with increases as well in Denver, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. Baltimore was the only city that saw a substantial decline.
“So if people are leaving cars on the street, they have no need to use them,” he says. “They aren’t checking on them as frequently. There’s also just less foot traffic around and fewer people to observe. I think that makes for more attractive targets for would-be thieves.”
Those targets and any COVID-19 impact on crime will likely change altogether as more cities try to reopen their economies and people again adjust their lives.