How to find and interpret crime data during the coronavirus pandemic: 5 tips

We outline five things to keep in mind about crime data trends during the pandemic, including a few tips for where to look for information about your local area.

by Wendy Sawyer, April 24, 2020

Crime rates have fallen in recent weeks, with most of the country under “stay at home” orders. As TIME and Bloomberg News have recently reported, cities across the country have seen changes in offense patterns as well as in the number of total crimes reported, with most places showing a significant decrease in overall crime. But crime data analysis isn’t cut-and-dry, so here we outline five things to keep in mind about crime data, including a few tips for where to look for information about your local area.

  1. The types and targets of crimes are changing
  2. Changes in policing will alter crime rates
  3. People may be less likely to report crimes
  4. Local crime trends may vary a lot and appear dramatic: here’s why
  5. Where to find local crime data, and what questions to ask about it

1. The types of crimes, and targets of crimes, are changing during the pandemic

Among the crime trends observed during this pandemic are changes in the types of crimes and sites of crimes. Notably, violent crime has dropped, and burglaries have shifted away from home break-ins to target closed businesses instead. These changes make sense in a world where more people are staying home during work hours and on weekends, and most brick-and-mortar businesses are either closed or operating fewer hours and with a fraction of their usual staff. For violent crimes like assault or robbery to occur, people have to come into close contact. And why would someone try to steal from an occupied house when there’s an empty shop downtown? Similarly, car thefts have gone up in a few cities, which is unsurprising when many drivers have little reason to move the car from where it’s been parked for the past month. Experts have weighed in to explain some of the recent crime trends for TIME and Bloomberg, offering similar common-sense explanations; the idea that crime changes as people’s “routine activities” change is also the subject of decades of criminological study.

There are more disturbing changes, likely fueled by the emotional strain of social isolation and collective grief, not to mention the economic strain of a sudden loss of income for millions of people. Some cities have reported an increase in calls related to domestic violence, for example, and with schools closed, children are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect at home. With commerce moved largely online, we may see more internet-based “white collar” crime, such as the new crop of scams reported by the FBI.

For millions of people, the strain caused by this virus will not end when shops open up and people can get together again, and evidence suggests that some crimes may increase because of the looming economic crisis. It will continue to be important to monitor crime trends to see how this pandemic affects Americans, particularly those on the margins, and to recognize that most crimes signal unmet needs that require help, not punishment.

2. Changes in policing will mean fewer arrests and lower crime rates

It’s important to remember that official crime data comes from law enforcement agencies, so it is a record of crimes reported to, or by, police. Therefore, as police practices change, so do crime statistics. This pandemic has impacted police departments in a number of ways: police officers have gotten sick, and officials have directed police to avoid unnecessary contact with the public and even to respond to some offenses differently, such as issuing citations in lieu of arrest. Most of these changes will result in fewer reported crimes, as there are fewer police officers available to patrol the streets, fewer face-to-face traffic and street stops, and fewer arrests overall. So some of the “decrease” in crime is due to changes in policing rather than changes in criminal behavior.

That means that the inverse is also true: when policing returns to “normal,” it’s very likely that reported crimes will go back to previous (historically low) levels. This should not cause alarm, although headlines will undoubtedly shout about a “spike” in crime when that happens. That “spike,” too, will be largely a reflection of police ramping enforcement back up to pre-pandemic levels. We should always be skeptical of short-term changes in crime data.

3. People may be less likely to report crimes, which will also lower crime rates

Not all crimes are reported to police by civilians, even under normal circumstances. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that in 2018, less than half (43%) of violent crime victimizations were reported to police, and an even smaller share (34%) of property crime victimizations were reported. Now that people are avoiding in-person contact for fear of contracting or spreading the coronavirus – even avoiding hospitals when they need them – it’s very likely that even fewer crimes are being reported to police. Victims of rape and sexual assault (crimes that are always underreported) may be even less likely to go to the police and undergo forensic medical exams. And given the heightened risk of infection in prisons and jails, victims of intimate partner violence or other domestic abuse may be even more reluctant to seek police intervention, which is likely to result in an arrest of at least one person, if not both.

As with changes in police practices, when the number of infections falls and people become more comfortable with face-to-face contact, we can probably expect the number of reported crimes to go up again. When that happens, we should be cautious of interpreting that change as an “increase in crime,” when it may largely reflect a return to pre-pandemic crime reporting rates.

4. Local crime trends may vary a lot and appear dramatic: here’s why

Headlines that start with sweeping statements like “Crime Rates Plummet Around the World” obscure important differences in crime data across cities, states, and regions. Just as the impact of the coronavirus looks very different when we look at national versus local infection rates, crime trends become more pronounced, and less consistent, when we look at local data. Part of this is because local conditions affect local crime patterns: in neighborhoods where people go to drink, for example, we might expect to see more assaults at night. And in places under stricter “stay at home” orders, we are likely to see more dramatic changes in crime.

Another reason that crime trends appear more exaggerated at the local level is that when the number of crimes is small enough, even relatively small changes are noticeable in the data. For example, as Bloomberg reported, the number of homicides in Austin was up 25% compared to the same time last year – but this was because of one additional homicide, taking the total count from 4 to 5. So it’s important to look critically at trends described in “percent change” terms, to consider how much actual change it reflects, and to report about the data responsibly.

5. Where to find local crime data, and what questions to ask about it

Almost all law enforcement agencies report crime data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. National data summaries have historically been published on an annual basis in the Crime in the United States reports, which also allow readers to access local agencies’ summary data. Now, the UCR program is shifting to quarterly data updates through the FBI’s online Crime Data Explorer tool, and will be phasing out the annual reports this year. The online tool provides more detailed local information (see Boston Police Department data, for example), and allows you to look at trends over time. Currently, the UCR data is updated through 2018, but according to the FBI, data from January-March 2020 (the start of the pandemic in the U.S.) will be added in June 2020 to the Crime Data Explorer; it will be updated quarterly thereafter. This will be a key source of timely data that will offer more perspective on crime trends across the country.

In many places, local law enforcement agencies also maintain and publish their own data, which may be more useful and up-to-date for local researchers and journalists. Major cities like New York and Philadelphia, for example, frequently publish timely statistics. New York publishes updated crime and jail data for every county in the state, in fact. It’s worth checking with your local law enforcement agency(s) to see whether they publish crime data regularly, and with any state statistical or research agencies, which may provide insights that the FBI data does not.

When reviewing any local crime data, consider the following questions:

  • What exactly is being measured? Is it arrests, crimes reported to police, all incidents known to police, calls for service, or something else? Are traffic violations or other low-level offenses included? Are they relevant to the question you’re trying to answer?
  • What does the baseline – or historical data – look like? What were crime rates (or counts) at the same time last year, and in the years before? Arrests are more common at certain times of the year (i.e. summer), so comparing similar time frames will help narrow down factors that might affect changes in the data. And remember that “percent change” can look very dramatic when you’re starting with a small baseline amount of crime (such as homicides).
  • If crime has increased, what kinds of crimes have gone up? Noticing that crime rates overall have gone up is not necessarily reason to sound the alarms; this may reflect an increase in non-violent property offenses among people desperate for money in an economic crisis, or problems with substance abuse among people who are experiencing extreme distress. On the other hand, some upticks in reported crime may deserve more attention right now, such as an increase in domestic violence or online scams.
  • How have local routines changed, and could that affect crime patterns? Are most people staying home? Are businesses downtown closed? Are people leaving cars parked on the street for days on end, when they would normally be moving them frequently? These questions may get at some of the reasons behind any changes in crime patterns.
  • How have local police practices changed, and could those changes affect the data? Have there been changes in staffing, deployment, priorities, or directives to respond differently to low-level crimes?

The final question we should ask when looking at crime data now is: What can we learn about the criminal justice system from recent changes in crime, or responses to crime? One positive effect of this pandemic experience may be that we see how our criminal justice system might operate differently – now and in the future. The recent crime drop, for example, indicates that counties and states can safely release large numbers of people from prisons and jails without compromising public safety. That fact begs the question: Why were so many locked up in the first place? These are the urgently needed conversations we need to have, and looking critically at crime data in the context of social and policy changes can help us get there.

Wendy Sawyer is the Prison Policy Initiative Research Director. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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