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The effects of COVID-19: Part two, criminality
 Simon Davison

Simon Davison

The effects of COVID-19: Part two, criminality

There’s been extensive research into the links between economic downturn and changes in the rate of criminality - but less on the impact of a global pandemic. Since the 1970s, the beginning of modern criminology, it’s generally become accepted that a 1% increase in unemployment should produce as much as a 2% increase in property-crime rates. Other studies have identified a similar pattern for robbery and even homicide. This held true until the 2008 financial crisis, when the trend disappeared completely. So what happened?

In this article, we’ll dive into some of the factors that will increase crime rates for specific types of high-impact offences - suggesting that the break in the relationship between unemployment and crime, which we saw after 2008, was temporary. We also outline how the lockdown is changing the nature of crimes committed against businesses, and explain that we’ll start to see an increase in overall criminality following a lag of between 4 to 12 months - putting pressure on increasingly stretched police forces.

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The initial phase - a decrease in (most) crime

New York City has become the global centre of the outbreak, outpacing even Italy and China. Mayor de Blasio instituted a lockdown on March 22, and the figures below show the crime statistics from the most recent week.

Many crimes are down by between 30 and 50%, but not all. Murder, burglary, and auto theft are up significantly - statistical flags for the number of shooting victims and shooting incidents have also increased marginally.

In a quarantine, some forms of criminality are easy to explain. In urban areas, it’s not always easy to park your car in a garage - or even near your home. Grand larceny auto (car theft) becomes much easier when most vehicles are no longer moving. Burglary of empty commercial areas, probably still full of stock and valuable equipment, also becomes very tempting. In Spain, for example, the Guardia Civil police force reports that they are commonly stopping vehicles, only to find them full of hardware used to break into warehouses, stores, and other premises.

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The most significant increase, though, is most clearly seen in murder. This data comes from one full week of New York lockdown, and as such we need to treat it with caution. It’s possible this is a statistical outlier. But there are other influences at work to consider.

Individuals sheltering in one place, particularly women, are more exposed to domestic violence and pressures within the home than if they were out or at work. In the most extreme cases, this leads to domestic homicides (usually by a husband or boyfriend). Equally, a number of commentators, including the Policy Exchange think tank in the United Kingdom, have noted that lockdown makes it extremely difficult to maintain drug supply chains - meaning there is a strong increase in price for drugs that are available. These high prices result in exacerbated turf wars between existing gangs, pushing up the murder rate.

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What causes the general decrease in criminality?

For most crimes we’re lucky that lockdown leads to decreases across the board. This is likely to continue, even in a weaker form, until quarantines are lifted. This broad-based decrease is down to the reduction in both the motivation to commit crime and the opportunity afforded to potential perpetrators. It’s much harder to rob someone when nobody is in the street, or drunkenly assault a patron of a bar when everywhere is closed.

This story is playing out across the developed world. Most national capitals have reported significant drops in most crimes. There is, though, an increase in crime which isn’t clearly shown in the New York City data. 

In its most recent report, Pandemic Profiteering, Europol warned:

“Fraud linked to the current pandemic is likely highly profitable for the criminals involved and they will attempt to capitalise on the anxieties and fears of victims throughout this crisis period”

Police forces across the European Union have reported scams focusing on the purchase of personal protective equipment (like face masks), as well as luring the vulnerable into investing in fake stocks that would ‘benefit’ from the pandemic.

Europol has outlined some of the key drivers for this immediate leap in fraud. The reliance on digital forms of communication by teleworkers, increased desperation by those who feel they may lose their job (or have already lost it), and increased anxiety and fear make some groups more vulnerable to being defrauded. Working from home has also led to an erosion in the employer's ability to enforce controls that would be present in office settings, such as firewalls, traffic monitoring, CCTV, and line manager oversight. Outside of the normal working environment, many feel more comfortable exploring potential ways to defraud their employer.

But what about after the lockdown is over. What will happen to crime rates post COVID-19?

What remains after lockdown ends

It is clear that lockdown has had an immediate - if temporary - effect on criminality. Some forms of crime have increased, while others have decreased.

Like any business, criminality has had to respond to vast changes in how we go about our lives. After social distancing measures end, criminality will be affected and shaped by something that is much longer-lasting - economic distress, unemployment, and lack of access to fiscal stimulus or other benefits.

Although we can’t foresee how a major pandemic will affect crime (relevant data was almost non-existent during the Spanish Flu of 1918, for example), we can look at the past to understand how recessions and depressions have changed the level and nature of offences following these events. This is particularly true for the United Kingdom and North America.

Robbery

The clearest relationship between crime and unemployment can usually be seen in robbery. This graph shows the robbery rate per 100,000 inhabitants compared with the unemployment rate in Canada between 1962 and 2008. Both graphs generally match fairly well.

This is fairly intuitive. As the options for individuals to obtain legal, honest work fall they are far more likely to commit robbery (the definition of which includes the threat of violence against another person) to obtain money to live, support a family, or support a vice - like gambling or drugs.

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A United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study identified similar connections in 15 sample countries. They asserted that:

“Violent property crime types such as robbery appeared most affected during times of crisis, with up to two-fold increases in some contexts during a period of economic stress.”

The connection was so strong that the UNODC study panel utilised this data to forecast crime changes in a 3 month time horizon, stating that the accuracy of the forecasts was high enough to be ‘useful’ for deploying police resources.

A similar study done by John Kurtz at New York University focused on this link after the Great Recession of 2008. He summarised that “declining economic conditions do not lead to higher overall crime or property crime levels, yet they do have significant effects on violent crime levels.” Interestingly, he went on to state that increased retail employment (at lower wages) after a financial crisis is a good predictor of an increase in violent crime. The recent push for the formerly unemployed to take up retail work to support the COVID-19 response may have just such an impact.

In some developing nations, we’ve already seen this playing out - and the fear of robbery contributing to vigilantism and civil disobedience, fuelled by disinformation being spread by social media.

On 15 April 2020, a gang war in the Nigerian state of Ogun - north of Lagos - led to the arrest of over 150 gang members. Hundreds more fled to the south into Lagos’ suburbs and hinterlands causing widespread civil unrest. It was also reported that gangs ran a deliberate disinformation campaign to generate additional panic, making it easier for them to rob locals.

Abimbola Oyeyemi, police spokesperson for Ogun state, explained that they had received over 300 calls reporting robberies in one day - all of which were fake. “They know it is difficult to rob an organised community, so they [gang members] want to disorganise and panic residents beforehand”. The campaign led to vigilante groups organising in a number of local communities, as well as significant unrest.

Homicide and threat to life

The link between criminality and unemployment extends beyond robbery. The same UNODC study reported that the correlation between crime and economic indicators fits well for robbery, however:

"In some contexts, increases in homicide and motor vehicle theft were also observed. These findings are consistent with criminal motivation theory, which suggests that economic stress may increase the incentive for individuals to engage in illicit behaviours.”

Studies by criminologists Janet Lauritsen and Karen Heimer in 2008, and Richard Rosenfeld in 2009, suggest a similar rise in homicides. In Detroit, murder has spiked more than 50% and non-fatal shootings 33% in the last two weeks of April 2020.

Richard Rosenfeld’s 2009 study outlines a clear theory: economic downturns create underground markets, usually for stolen goods, as a result of ‘acquisitive’ crime (such as robbery, burglary, and fraud). Based on the available data, he posits “that rates of violence should increase with expansions in underground markets and that changing rates of violent crime are causally related to corresponding changes in acquisitive crime.” Rosenfeld goes on to say there is “a significant effect of acquisitive crime on homicide.”

To summarise, economic downturns create black markets. And, as disagreements between parties in such markets can’t be dealt with through legal means, homicide increases.

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In the context of COVID-19, we’re already beginning to see how this could play out.

A source within Digos, Italy’s anti-terrorism and anti-mafia police force, recently warned news agencies that increasing unemployment and desperation in Italy’s poorer south was creating a recruiting boon for organised criminal groups. “Criminal organisations have plenty of money and people could end up working for them, and once that starts, they won’t go back,” said Giovanni Orsina, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome.

It’s also important to note that this often affects the wider market: whether through extortion, collusion, or money lending. Many organised criminal syndicates now work in the ‘grey’ market, providing unregulated support such as labour and debt to legitimate businesses.

Fraud, cybercrime, and extortion

Fraud is becoming more prevalent as society fights COVID-19. This trend is likely to continue even after quarantine and social distancing measures ease. Europol’s warning is clear:

“The emergence of new fraud schemes and a further increase in the number of victims targeted can be expected. Even when the current crisis ends, criminals are likely to adapt fraud schemes in order to exploit the post-pandemic situation.”

An EU member state investigation discovered a single company had been defrauded out of €6.6 million by an overseas fraud group while attempting to buy hand sanitiser gels and other equipment from Singapore. A similar scenario left another EU firm at least €300,000 out of pocket.

In the longer term, desperation on the part of individuals could lead to a significant increase in fraud against their employers. Even if a person retains their job throughout the pandemic, the likelihood that family members have experienced layoffs and furloughs is  high - potentially putting many families in a dire financial position. This is likely to become a key motivation for internal fraud, particularly if extended social distancing measures mean that compliance controls and oversight are harder for firms to implement as their workforce transition to remote working for many months, or even years.

The UK agency responsible for receiving and triaging fraud reports, Action Fraud, has received over 100 reports of fraud in the seven weeks from the beginning of March 2020. While the City of London police have received over 200 reports of virus-themed scam attempts alone.
For some companies, internal theft is also likely to become a significant issue - particularly for those firms that hold significant stock or information that is in high demand during the pandemic.

The UK was the home of one of the first confirmed international COVID-19 scams when Frank Ludlow, 59, was caught sending fake ‘test kits’ to the United States from his home in Sussex. The kits contained dangerous and hard to come by chemicals possibly procured from insiders on the black market.

Extortion attempts against legitimate businesses are also likely to increase as organised criminal groups take advantage of the increase in the underground market - a normal result of most economic downturns. Considering the scale of the downturn, which has the potential to be larger than any recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, this risk is likely to be significant. The reduction in overall economic activity during the lockdown and quarantine period may also result in an initial spike of extortion and ransom activity as criminal groups seek to make up their losses from the preceding months.

In March 2020, international cybersecurity firm Sophos identified an online extortion tactic being used by cybercriminals: taking stolen passwords and convincing recipients that the hackers knew everything about them. Before demanding money not to ‘infect their family with coronavirus’.

Although most would understand that such a threat is far-fetched in the cyber domain, any copycat tactics by organised criminal groups are likely to be much more threatening for the purposes of extortion. It’s yet to be seen whether such groups would stoop to this level, and the appearance of such threats against businesses is likely to rest on the perceived effectiveness of the tactic by criminal groups balanced against the likelihood of getting caught (see the ‘Police and judicial system deterioration’ section).

Prison release programmes

James Q. Wilson, a former professor of public administration and political science at Harvard and the University of California Los Angeles, has previously stated that:

“William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it right in believing that greater incarceration can explain one-quarter or more of the crime decline. Yes, many thoughtful observers think that we put too many offenders in prison for too long. For some criminals, such as low-level drug dealers and former inmates returned to prison for parole violations, that may be so. But it’s true nevertheless that when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family.”

A number of economists have suggested that overall crime did not increase after the Great Recession of 2008 in the United States as so many people were already in prison. In the short term, COVID-19 is changing that dynamic.

Fears over the rapid spread of coronavirus in crowded prisons has led a number of countries to begin and pursue early release programmes. In Iran, 54,000 prisoners ended up being released to halt the spread. Over 10,000 are being released in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Turkey for similar reasons. Meanwhile, thousands have escaped worldwide to avoid infection, including 2,100 inmates in Thailand who needed to be recaptured.

In the United Kingdom, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice have begun pursuing an early release programme for ‘low risk’ prisoners. The initiative was temporarily suspended on 18 April after 6 prisoners were accidentally released, and needed to be asked to come back to prison. It’s likely that this programme will continue once stronger controls are put in place.

The US has taken much the same approach. United States Attorney General, William Barr, recently announced that he is considering releasing around 2,000 prisoners aged over 60 who have not committed violent crimes. While inmates have been released at the State level in Arizona, California, Illinois, and New York. As the pandemic continues to sweep across the US, it’s highly likely that additional inmate releases will take place.

The imperative to protect inmates from coronavirus is clear, and releases are an obvious remedy. However, it is possible that this will have a short to medium term impact on crime rates. Prison riots have also become more common, even in the developed world, posing a risk to nearby communities if there is an increase in escape attempts.

A recent survey by Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Law School, and the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare also identified that communities close to prisons are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus infection - particularly as correctional officers normally live close to their place of work.

Deterioration of the police and judicial system

We’ve outlined the probable ways the COVID-19 pandemic will affect patterns of criminality. But how well are the police and judicial system prepared to deal with it?

In both the United Kingdom and United States, police officers are at the front line of dealing with suspected coronavirus cases. It has been reported that at any one time, London’s Metropolitan Police are dealing with between a 10% and 40% absentee rate due to those who are sick, infected with COVID-19, or self isolating as per government guidelines. This is clearly putting a huge strain on their ability to keep the peace, and very few proactive investigations are being pursued at this time.

The situation is similar in the United States. The graph below shows the total number of COVID-19-infected officers for the worst hit police departments in the country, according to the Associated Press as of the beginning of April.

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This data tells us two things:

  1. Where current infections are highest, local police forces becomes overwhelmed very quickly. This can spread across units working  together in close quarters.
  2. Many US police departments are nowhere close to hitting their worst case scenarios. There is a long way to go before an agency reaches ‘herd immunity’ status within the community (which is inevitable, as agencies are rightly not able to practise effective social distancing measures).

It is likely this will significantly affect their ability to combat serious crime and criminality in general until the pandemic is halted - either through a vaccine or some other method.

Even at low infection rates, some departments are also suffering from significant losses.

Detroit PD recently lost Captain James Parnell, who headed their homicide team; a civilian dispatch officer succumbed to the virus a few days prior. Agency leadership are often longer in their careers, not to mention older, making them more susceptible to the virus. And this threat to the chain of command within law enforcement units could pose a significant risk to overall morale - in so doing, reducing crime fighting effectiveness.

Adapting to the current situation

Many police departments across the UK and North America are also attempting to limit their exposure to the virus by issuing tickets and summons in lieu of arresting suspects. “Nobody wants to get into a car with somebody breathing all over you if you don’t got to,” Sergeant Michael Jackson of the Detroit Police Department told the LA Times. In the medium term, this attempt to reduce exposure to the virus could reduce the ability of police forces to enforce the law as the populace begin to emerge from quarantine while the virus is still present in the community.

The judicial systems in both the UK and US are also making changes to maximise police resources for other tasks. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) released interim guidance to inform charging decisions in light of COVID-19. It also deprioritised all non-urgent cases - which includes fraud, major organised crime, and assault.

According to the CPS, this is because these types of crime require the most investigation and criminal disclosure activity, which would lead to a “clogging up” of the court system. These crimes also have a disproportionate affect on businesses (rather than individuals). This reduced response to criminality, both at the arrest stage and charging stage, will almost certainly continue for a significant period.

Timeframes of these effects on criminality

The potential changes in the number and types of crimes committed in response to COVID-19 has already begun. However, the most significant effects are likely to be based on the wider economic situation. We’ll almost certainly see a delay before we feel the full impact.

You need only look at the UNODC report on the link between crime and the Great Recession of 2008, which found that:

“Where an association between one or more economic variables and crime outcomes were identified by statistical modelling, the model frequently indicated a lag time between changes in the economic variable and resultant impact on crime levels. The average lag time in the contexts examined was around four-and-a-half months.”

Richard Rosenfeld, meanwhile, surmises that “every recession since the late 1950s has been associated with an increase in crime and, in particular, property crime and robbery, which would be most responsive to changes in economic conditions.” “Typically,” he says, “there is a year lag between changes in the economy and change in crime rates.”

These two studies provide us with a bracket for the expected effects on crime to be felt: between 4.5 months and 12 months. But this will also largely depend on when the most significant economic impacts come to pass. For example, whether the ‘trough’ of economic contraction in the UK and North America has already come to pass as of April 2020, or whether we have a number of months to go before reaching the bottom.

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