Policing the Pandemic

Some Questions and a Need for Research

This [isn’t] intended to be a comprehensive examination of crime and the pandemic.

But our analysis did reveal some interesting things about what we know – and what we don’t yet know – about how COVID-19 is affecting crime.

FIRST, WHAT WE KNOW ….

  1. As businesses closed and most people stayed at home, crime – and especially violent crime – did not decline evenly or everywhere the pandemic has not dramatically altered traditional patterns of gang warfare, drug-related violence, and individuals using guns to settle personal disputes. These serious, deeply entrenched problems continue to drive much of the violence in our communities.
  2. Many crimes are a function of opportunity, especially during the pandemic. Residential burglaries plummeted in almost every city as people stayed home, depriving criminals of access to unoccupied dwellings… the drop in residential burglaries was more than offset by a surge in burglaries of businesses that have been shuttered. Similarly, with fewer people on the street, we found that robberies declined in most cities.
  3. Some crimes, such as domestic violence, are underreported and difficult to measure. In normal times, these crimes are often underreported, and that may be even more true now.  If victims are trapped at home with perpetrators under stay-at-home orders, they may find it difficult to contact the police without the perpetrator knowing about it.   

NOW, WHAT WE DON’T YET KNOW ….

  1. How is the reduction in proactive policing affecting crime? The pandemic has prompted a number of measures designed to minimize arrests, in order to reduce the likelihood of officers contracting the COVID-19 virus as they arrest offenders and transport them for booking. Our data found that arrests for more serious (Part I) offenses decreased in two-thirds of the cities we surveyed. Several saw reductions of 50% or more. And arrests for less serious (Part II) offenses were down sharply across the board. For many of these offenses, the police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests. In addition, calls for service are down in 29 of the 30 jurisdictions PERF surveyed. And chiefs report that routine traffic enforcement has been dramatically scaled back.
  2. Are repeat offenders causing a spike in some crimes?

We’ve heard from several sheriffs’ offices that are working to reduce their jail populations in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and staff. They are increasing the use of pre-arrest diversion and pretrial release programs, and are petitioning for the release of some offenders nearing the end of their sentences.

What the data don’t tell us is what impact, if any, these measures are having on crime. We don’t fully understand this dynamic and how it will play out during the pandemic and afterwards. But it is something that will be important to study as jurisdictions consider whether to continue some of the reform measures they have implemented during the pandemic.

  • Is crime being displaced – not geographically but among different crime types? Creating a more complete and accurate picture of crime during the pandemic will require more than analyzing UCR statistics. To drill down on how much crime actually occurred and how traditional crime patterns may have changed will require approaches such as localized victimization surveys.
  • What impact will unemployment and other economic hardships have on crime? The pandemic has prompted levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, and economic activity overall has slowed to a crawl. That does not mean that the factory workers or retail clerks who lose their jobs today will become the burglars or bank robbers of tomorrow. But the desperation that comes with this level of economic hardship could impact domestic violence, child abuse, and other types of crime. Understanding the relationships between economic issues and crime is particularly important right now.
  • The Need for Research. At this point, we don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. But as restrictions are gradually lifted and people begin to return to more normal routines, the opportunities for crime will undoubtedly change. Many epidemiologists are warning that next fall, we may see a new wave of COVID-19, which could bring new stay-at-home orders and a return to the crime patterns we’ve experienced over the last couple months. (Summary of a report from the Police Executive Research Forum).