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Pandemic Crime Trend: Fewer Offenses, More Victims Outside

Is the pandemic-era crime wave the most serious issue facing cities, or a media-driven distraction that threatens to quash social reforms? That question has been haunting authorities since the summer of 2020. The answer is complicated by divergent and incomplete data, entrenched political positions, and crime-happy media coverage, reports Slate.

President Biden's plea for just and responsible policing in his State of the Union speech was partly an attempt to address a sense in Biden’s own party that crime is a subject of greater public concern than it has been in years. More than 70 percent of Americans are “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with policies to reduce or control crime, according to Gallup, a number up more than 20 points since 2019, and the highest in two decades of polling.

A new working paper from a pair of economists who study crime may help. Total crime numbers went down in 2020, it argues, but the odds of being a victim went up. “We wanted to understand what it meant to have overall crime be down, in a context of overall reduced activity,” says Maxim Massenkoff of the Naval Postgraduate School in San Francisco, one of the authors.

Massenkoff and criminologist Aaron Chalfin of the University of Pennsylvania found sources documenting a huge and prolonged decrease in the total number of hours people spent out and about in cities.

From March to December, 2020, public violence in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago cities was 19 percent lower than it had been in 2019. When put into the context of how little people left the house that year, in April violent street crime fell by 30 percent but the risk of being a victim of such a crime rose by almost 40 percent.

A similar pattern held for the whole year: Even as street crime fell, the risk of being a victim of a crime rose between 15 and 30 percent over the previous year, depending on which measure of “outdoor activity” was used. In short, if you spent time in public, you were more likely to be robbed or assaulted in public in 2020 than in 2019.

That risk remained very, very small: 12 violent crimes per million outdoor hours, or more than 80,000 safely-spent outdoor hours for each violent crime.

By suggesting what happened in 2020, the paper permits a better analysis on how to best address or prioritize public safety in 2022.


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