Lower crime rates don’t automatically make us safer

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had an enormous impact on nearly every aspect of our day-to-day lives, ranging from economic distress, to disrupted schooling, and public health impacts. Relatedly, changes in crime rates have been perplexing. While overall crime rates were down by about 15% in 2020 relative to 2019, homicides saw an unprecedented increase of 29.4%. Further, aggravated assaults also increased (+12.0%), as did motor vehicle theft (+11.8%). Certain crimes became less prevalent though, with decreases in rape (-12.0%), larceny-theft (-10.6%), robbery (-9.3%), and burglary (-7.4%). Even more perplexing is that, according to some research, some cities saw increases in reported shooting incidents (e.g., Chicago, +23.0%; New York City, +11.7%), while others saw decreases (e.g., Los Angeles, -9.3%). 

These contradictory numbers are confusing. If you look at changes in the crime rate, it only presents a small part of the issue. A new paper by Maxim Massenkoff of the Manhattan Institute explains why the crime rate isn’t a useful statistic to understand what happened to public safety in 2020. 

Researchers have attempted to unpack the complex relationship between COVID-19 and crime, but doing this is easier said than done — some crimes are up, some are down, some are unreported, and some have likely displaced to other locations. Some have argued that decreases in certain types of crimes might be due to changes in policing strategy that reduce enforcement of certain crimes. Others mention the critical role of “population mobility,” i.e., the lifestyles and routine activities of people that live and work in an area. COVID-19 policy restrictions substantially affected the flow and volume of people on the streets, which could have impacted human behavior and led to a shift in crime dynamics. For example, things like stay-at-home orders, social distancing, business closures, unemployment, and decreases in mass transit use created dramatic shifts in the amount of time spent away from home and work. According to the American Time Use Survey, people spent 50 percent less time away from home in the early days of the pandemic. By the end of 2020, as people began to return to normal activities, they still spent about 20 percent less time away from their homes. 

A thorough analysis by Maxim Massenkoff showed that, despite the decreases in crime witnessed in 2020, Americans still faced a greater risk of crime while in public. In other words, because so many fewer people were out of their homes during the pandemic, the chances of being a victim for these individuals increased (even though the overall crime rate decreased). 

To look at violent crime, Massenkoff looked at micro-data from New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and identified crimes that occurred in public places. He also obtained information from the National Crime Victimization Survey for additional analysis. To look at population mobility, Massenkoff looked at anonymous GPS cell phone data provided by Google, Apple, Facebook, and Safegraph. The GPS data was used to measure foot traffic and time spent outdoors at the census-block level. Then, Massenkoff compared foot traffic and time spent outdoors with the number of violent crimes known to law enforcement to calculate the risk of street-traffic victimization.

The analysis found that, in all three cities, outdoor foot traffic declined steeply at the beginning of the pandemic. By April 2020, street crimes fell by more than 30%, but the risk of street crime victimization rose by nearly 40% during this same time. When looking beyond April through the end of 2020, crime was about 19% lower in comparison with 2019 numbers, but street crime victimization risk rose by more than 15%. These results suggest that the increase in risk was likely related to shifts in population mobility and changes in criminal opportunities. Taking this into consideration, it seems misleading to say that 2020 was a relatively safe year. According to Massenkoff, “we weren’t safer in 2020–we just weren’t measuring crime risk very well.” 

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