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Q&A

COVID-19 and Crime: How Responses to the Pandemic Affected Homicide Rates

Stay-at-home orders from the coronavirus resulted in a sudden decline in homicide in America, but there’s reason to think 2020 will be more violent than 2019.

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A new report commissioned by Arnold Ventures shows that American homicide rates declined dramatically in April and May, presumably as a result of coronavirus business closures and stay-in-place orders. Using crime data from 64 U.S. cities, the researchers found that homicide rates declined by 21.5 percent in April and 9.9 percent in May compared with the previous three-year average for those months. But the news isn’t all good — the report predicts that as the country opens back up, homicide rates will increase, leading to an anticipated higher overall homicide rate for 2020.

Arnold Ventures recently spoke to the authors of the study, Thomas Abt and Richard Rosenfeld. Abt is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and the author of "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets". Rosenfeld is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you decide to study the effect of COVID-19 on homicide rates?

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Richard Rosenfeld

I had already begun work on a much longer-term project studying weekly homicide counts in American cities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been anecdotal evidence about homicides decreasing in certain cities. Arnold Ventures was interested in a quick turn-around project to get some more systematic evidence into the debate, so they asked us to do this report.

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Arnold Ventures

I was interested to learn that homicides were actually up in the first three months of the year.

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Richard Rosenfeld

Overall they’re up about 6 percent for the year so far. If you look at the change in January and February, compared to the same months of 2019, there were very sizable increases. I had not anticipated those increases and don’t know how to fully account for them. We saw about a 28 percent increase in January, a 17 percent increase in February and March, and then a 22-point decline in April. Typically as weather warms up, we see an increase in street crime, including homicides. So the decline seems to be associated with the first phase of the stay-in-place orders and business closures. In May we continued to see a decline, but it was only half as large. That, and other factors, led us to predict that we’re going to see homicides increase over the next few months.

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Thomas Abt

Nobody can explain why crime goes up or down in a discrete period of time with 100 percent confidence. However, it is very hard to explain such a pronounced decline in homicides at a time you would expect them to go up. There really is no other plausible explanation for such a strong decline other than the pandemic.

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Arnold Ventures

Is there any precedent for this kind of precipitous decline in homicides?

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Richard Rosenfeld

Possibly, but on a month-to-month basis, not to my knowledge. We had a big decrease in homicides during the '90s. But that unfolded over a number of years, not from one month to the next.

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Arnold Ventures

Why would a pandemic reduce homicides to such an extent?

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Richard Rosenfeld

It all boils down to the level of public activity. Homicides depend on relatively vibrant activity patterns — lots of people on the street. When the streets are empty, the opportunities for all kinds of street crime go down. The notable exception is domestic homicide, but overall we should expect homicide rates to decline as the streets are emptied and businesses close. High levels of unemployment also tend to coincide with lower levels of crime. We saw that during the Great Depression and the Great Recession. But as activity patterns go back to normal, we should expect these types of crime to begin going back up. That’s what we think we’re seeing in the smaller decline of homicides in May compared to April.

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Thomas Abt

Crime is multifactorial — lots of things impact crime rates. So you wouldn’t expect crime in every city to respond to the pandemic in the same way. In fact, there was a significant number of cities where violence did not go down. Overall, homicides declined, but not everywhere.

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Richard Rosenfeld

Thirty-nine of our 64 cities experienced homicide declines in April and May. Twenty-five did not.

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Arnold Ventures

Why do homicides tend to go down during economic downturns? That seems counterintuitive.

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Richard Rosenfeld

Recessions mean people are out of work, and people who are out of work tend to stay home rather than be out and about. So activity is reduced. I’ve also found in my own work that when inflation rates decline, as they did during the Great Depression and Great Recession, we tend to see fewer violent crimes and property crimes. The reason appears to be that during periods of rampant inflation, like during the '70s, there are greater incentives for thieves to ply their trade.

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Arnold Ventures

Thomas, what does your research (as discussed in your book "Bleeding Out") say about the best way to reduce homicides?

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Thomas Abt

There are three core anti-violence principles that I uncovered in my research. First, the most successful strategies are very focused on the highest-risk people and places. Second, the strategies are balanced between police- and non-police approaches. Third, they are fair — they are legitimacy-enhancing rather than legitimacy-reducing. There seems to be a relationship between the legitimacy of the state, specifically law enforcement, and the level of violence in the community. As legitimacy drops, the people in these communities simply don’t use the criminal justice system to mediate conflicts and instead turn to violence. We saw a significant increase in homicides after the unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, and other places. We may be in for the same thing in the wake of the George Floyd protests.

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Arnold Ventures

Can you talk about the example of Oakland, which cut its homicides in half using the kind of balanced strategy you mentioned?

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Thomas Abt

In Oakland they used a strategy called “focused deterrence.” It was a partnership between police, service providers, and community members. There had been a history of very difficult community-police relationships in Oakland, yet this strategy was successful. Basically, they identified the people at the highest risk of violence and then a team of people sat down with them and tried to intervene. They presented a message of empathy and accountability. And that has also been effective in other places.

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Arnold Ventures

In the report you mention how a loss in trust between people and police can lead to an increase in violent crime. Do you think that will happen now?

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Thomas Abt

It is something I’m worried about. After Ferguson, there was talk among conservatives of a Ferguson Effect — a national slowdown in policing that was causing a crime spike. Researchers did not find a national slowdown, but there were isolated slowdowns that may have driven up homicide rates in Chicago and Baltimore. If a so-called Blue Flu happens, it can definitely affect homicide rates in a city. That doesn’t mean some cities aren’t overpoliced, but it’s a matter of the drawdown being arbitrary versus planned.

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Richard Rosenfeld

After Ferguson I studied arrest rates for low-level offenses, and what I found is that police had been drawing back for years before the unrest without homicides going up. What the data appear to show is that if police ease up on these lower-level offenses, it doesn’t necessarily portend increases in more serious crimes.

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Arnold Ventures

Can you talk a little more about this linkage between crime rates and perceptions of police legitimacy?

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Richard Rosenfeld

As Tom said, there’s emerging research suggesting that if people think they’re treated fairly and justly by police, they’re less likely to take matters into their own hands and more likely to rely on the traditional functions of law enforcement. We don’t just see this in low-income communities of color. One of the driving forces in the arming of the American citizenry is the belief that when you need them the police won’t be there to protect you, so you have to protect yourself. When you think about it, that’s exactly the same logic that drives the concern and fear in communities of color — that, ultimately, you’re on your own.

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Arnold Ventures

Based on your research, do you anticipate that the decline in homicides over the past two months will lead to a lower year-over-year homicide rate for 2020?

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Richard Rosenfeld

No, I don’t think it will. We saw a big uptick in homicides for the first three months of the year, a sizable decline in April, a less sizable decline in May. I don’t think we’ll see much of a decline in June, and I think homicide rates will go up for the rest of the year. So overall I think we’ll probably end 2020 with a higher homicide rate than 2019. I hope we’re wrong, but that’s how we’re reading the evidence.