Will Changes in the Environment Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the Distribution and Intensity of Criminal Activity?
Over a short period of time, the COVID-19 outbreak has become a global pandemic spreading over hundreds of countries and territories around the world. In response to this unprecedented crisis, national and regional governments are implementing various strategies that seek to reduce the spread and impact of this virus. The most common measure calls for all citizens to stay at home and limit their interactions with other individuals through a process of social distancing. In an effort to reduce the stigma created by social isolation, the World Health Organization (WHO) clarified the need for physical distancing while allowing people to socialize remotely as opposed to in-person. Other restrictions have included the closing of schools and all non-essential businesses in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting opportunities for interactions among people at particular places.
In some countries, these restrictions are enforced through the use of police or the military (e.g., Spain or Italy), while others have opted for a less aggressive approach that doesn’t require police enforcement (e.g., U.S.A.). These measures have effectively altered the social fabric and routine activities of entire cities and communities around the globe. In a city like New York, the number of daily subway riders has dropped by more than 70% (according to the MTA). In densely populated world capitals where thousands of people used to congregate in any given day, streets are now mostly empty. Only grocery stores and a handful of businesses deemed by local governments to be essential remain open.
The current lockdown situation has led to significant changes in the way people interact and connect with their environment. It has also led to an increase in economic uncertainty and large-scale layoffs across varying job sectors. These changes can affect the way crime opportunities are distributed across the urban, suburban and rural landscapes. Suburbanites who once routinely commuted into cities for work, for instance, are now home in the suburbs all day and night. The fundamental question then becomes whether or not a changing environment can have a significant effect on the way crime is distributed.
In the city of Newark, New Jersey, recent crime statistics show that overall crime is down by 25%, with 41% fewer violent crime incidents and a 9% decrease in property crime (according to NPD data). A similar pattern seems to follow in other cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. However, it is yet unknown whether crime will continue to go down in the next weeks and months. And, most importantly, whether future crimes will emerge at past hotspots or if new ones will emerge.
As cities change due to people’s altered routines and customs, one can expect that new crime patterns will emerge at new places. New hotspots will not be in the same areas as past hotspots. The spatio-temporal dynamics of crime are closely intertwined with the built environment where people’s activities take place. As these places change, offenders will likely find new opportunities at non-traditional places for criminal activity. In the coming weeks and months, law enforcement and other local stakeholders will need to be prepared to adapt to the new situational contexts for crime created by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The current situation calls for data-informed approaches that can be used to chart these changes and help community groups and public agencies make decisions about how to channel resources to enhance community safety before new crime hotspots emerge or persist. These changes do not have to be noticed by surprise. Implementing better analytics and data are important steps in making emergent problems visible before they’re chronic, especially when they focus on the physical characteristics of incident locations. Being aware of emerging threats and new patterns of behavior is an essential component of public safety and community well-being (e.g., https://newarkcollaborative.org).
It is therefore fundamental to expand the analytical capacities of decision-making agencies during these challenging times. Efforts will not only need to be data-informed but also require collaboration and coordination across multiple public and private agencies and nongovernmental organizations (here's a quick guide from Rutgers University). A multi-stakeholder data-informed effort allows for priority resource allocations to the people and places that need them most while quickly adapting to the continuously evolving situational contexts created by the current health crisis. Today, more than ever, data-informed community engagement programs are needed to address this global health crisis at the local level.