Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crime watch

Expanding on a theme that has gotten considerable play during the recession began, CNN reports that neighborhoods are becoming more wary of crime as local economies deteriorate.
With the economic downturn, neighborhood watch groups are proving to be a first line of defense in battling property crimes.
The article indicates that these neighborhood fears may be well-grounded.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based independent research organization made up of local and state police officials, released a survey in January showing that 44 percent of police departments reported increases in crimes they believed could be attributed to the economic crisis.

Of the departments surveyed, 39 percent reported an increase in robberies, and 32 percent said they had seen a rise in burglaries.

Those surveyed also reported a 40 percent increase in thefts, including those of GPS devices from cars and other "opportunistic" crimes.
Empirical economic research also supports the notion that crime rates rise and fall with the economy, though the strength of the relationship may only be modest.

Steven Levitt (the author of Freakanomics) summarized evidence of economic links in a 2004 Journal of Economic Perspectives article. The studies that he reviewed consistently found that crime rates increased with unemployment, but only slightly. He reported that each one percent rise in the unemployment rate was associated with a similar one percent rise in the property crime rate.

The CNN article includes information from a historical study that Price Fishback conducted of crime rates during the Great Depression that lines up with Levitt's findings. Fishback is quoted in the article as saying, "For a 1 percent increase in employment, you found about a 1 percent reduction in the crime rate."

Since the start of the recession last year, unemployment has increased about 3 percent, meaning that property crimes would have increased by roughly the same amount. A troubling result, but hardly a crime wave.

Some other research indicates that the association may be stronger. For example, an article published last year by Meng-Jen Lin reported that the responsiveness of property crimes to the unemployment rate might be as much as six times stronger than the figure used by Levitt. If so, we would expect the property crime rate to have jumped by up to 18 percent over the past year.

If there is a silver lining in the research, it is that the links between the economy and crime rates don't seem to extend to violent crimes.