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Coronavirus and crime

It’s down around the country. Turns out having everyone stay inside has a salutary effect, for the most part.

Crime rates plunged in cities and counties across the U.S. over the second half of March as the coronavirus pandemic drove millions of residents to stay inside their homes.

Police logged dramatically fewer calls for service, crime incidents and arrests in the last two weeks of March than each of the previous six weeks, a USA TODAY analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states found. The analysis is among the largest studies measuring the impact of the coronavirus on crime and policing.

Massive drops in traffic and person stops – as much as 92% in some jurisdictions – helped drive sharp declines in drug offenses and DUIs. Thefts and residential burglaries decreased with fewer stores open and homes unoccupied, and some agencies logged fewer assaults and robberies. Bookings into each of nearly two dozen county jails monitored by the news organization fell by at least a quarter since February.

At the same time, calls for domestic disturbances and violence surged by 10% to 30% among many police agencies that contributed data. Several also saw increases in public nuisance complaints such as loud noise from parties. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received 362 loud-music complaints in the last two weeks of March, nearly matching its total for all of February.

The trends reflect both a purposeful reduction in police activity and officer-initiated stops and the effect of stay-at-home orders that have closed huge swaths of Main Street and pushed people into their homes and out of traditional crime hot spots, such as bars, clubs and social events.

The Marshall Project did a similar look at a smaller number of cities in late March, and this AP report is fresh off the presses, and both saw the same basic thing. DUI arrests are down for the obvious reason that fewer people are driving, but that same decline in driving means a decline in traffic stops, which in turn means a big drop in drug possession busts. Some cities have stopped arresting people for low-level offenses anyway, as a coronavirus risk mitigation. Burglaries are a more interesting case – home burglaries are on the decline since most people are now mostly at home, but more businesses are closed, which does increase the target surface. HPD Chief Art Acevedo claims burglaries of businesses in Houston are up 18.9% – this KTRK story, which is based on the tweet in which Acevedo made that claim, just says “burglaries” are up, which is a misrepresentation of the Chief’s words – but he didn’t provide numbers or a time frame for that. And as the Marshall Project story says, crime can fluctuate quite a bit over a short time span for any number of reasons, so all this should be seen as very preliminary and not necessarily predictive. Let’s see what we’re seeing after another month of staying at home.

One crime that is definitely on the rise, in Houston and around the country, is domestic abuse, including child abuse. A spike in gun sales is unlikely to help with that. Being at home is safe for most of us, but not all of us. For people trapped at home with an abuser, there is no safety and now no escape. I don’t know what to do about that now, but as with so many other things, we need to give it a lot of thought, and more resources, so we are better prepared for the next time.

One more thing:

Many police departments say they are intentionally arresting fewer people to avoid the potential spread of the coronavirus in jails. Police in Delray Beach, Florida, are reducing proactive policing, such as drug busts. In nearby Gainesville, Florida, officers are increasingly issuing summons instead of making arrests for minor offenses, Police chief inspector Jorge Campos said.

“It’s not that we’re not enforcing (the law),” Campos said. “It’s that we’re finding alternative ways of dealing with the issue rather than make physical arrests.”

Huh. What if – stay with me here – we kept on doing that even after the coronavirus pandemic is over? It’s so crazy it just might work.

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4 Comments

  1. Dr. B says:

    Hey, Charles. Nice blog post on crime during the coronavirus. As I read, I kept waiting for you to tap on the reduction of revenue by the loss of traffic tickets. It might be a small amount over a week, but could collectively be a significant amount with an unknown end date for isolation. According to HPD’s own statistics under a Racial Profiling Report for 2019, there were a total of 355,132 traffic stops (222,877 resulted in citations or 63% of the stops). Averaging 18,573 per month, considering no other variables. Once adjudicated, the outcomes vary (dismissals, defensive driving, etc.). Defensive driving still has a monetary value, but cost and fees usually are equal to paying for the citation itself.

    Assuming a 20% dismissal rate (likely a bit high), would leave 178,301 citations. Again assuming, each ticket/citation resulted in a collection of a rough $100. The estimate would be $1,485,841 of lost revenue per month.

    On the flip side, parking tickets are not moving violations (traffic stops). There is also a loss of city revenue when cars are not being parked at meters or say fire hydrants. I couldn’t readily find a report for parking violations.

    Simply, that is a lot of money given other city revenues that are not being collected during the stay at home order coupled with the amount the city is paying for unexpected public health expenditures. The current budget year will be a mess for the Mayor and Council to deal with for quite a while.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. You’re right, fewer citations written is yet another drain on the city’s revenues, at the worst possible time. There’s a much longer discussion to be had about the dependence on such revenues – the whole red light camera argument was in part about that – but we can save that for another time. For now, thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Ross says:

    2020 budget had $26.5 million for fines and forfeits, or 0.98% of the budget. $20.5 of that is municipal court related. Enough to cause some pain if it’s missing, but not too concerning.

  4. David Fagan says:

    Policing has been developed as a result of the need for protection and victimization investigation, not a revenue stream. Using the police as a revenue stream is a problem. If citations are down as a result of people seeking safety, that should be seen as a good sign. The issue of revenue generation through policing citations should be included in discussions about political corruption due to monetary contributions, and dislike for the current president.