Fewer people out and about in cities in 2020 so more people were victims of crime?

A working paper tries to put crime in the recent context of fewer people moving around cities in 2020:

Photo by Nout Gons on Pexels.com

Each of these metrics basically reports the same thing: A huge and prolonged decrease in the total number of hours people spent out and about in the American city. This decline peaked in April 2020, but urbanites stayed sedentary throughout the year, relative to 2019.

For crime data, the duo used statistics from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, which enabled them to sort for violent crime that occurred in public—a category that included streets, parks, alleyways, commercial establishments, and offices.

The results: From March to December, 2020, public violence in the three cities was 19 percent lower than it had been in 2019. But when put into the context of how little Americans left the house that year, that data takes on a different significance. In April, for example, 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.

For what it’s worth, 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.

This is an interesting way to think about perceptions of crime: even if fewer crimes were committed, they might feel like more if there was less activity. This reminds me of some of the images going around from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic of empty streets and cities. Once busy places simply did not have people. How did this affect perceptions of safety in public settings?

Would the same idea apply to media reporting on crime: because of a lack of other public activity (beyond COVID-19), did crime receive more attention even if there were fewer crimes? Perceptions of crime might be more important than the actual statistics themselves. Americans can be fearful even as numbers go down.

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