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Opinion The pandemic crime paradox might have a rational explanation after all

A sheriff's deputy puts up crime scene tape after a shooting at a church in Sacramento last month. (Fred Greaves/Reuters)
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A year ago, on a trip to New York City, I noticed a curious disconnect: Almost everyone I interviewed was convinced that crime had risen sharply. But when I asked them whom they knew who had been victimized, they drew blanks.

This mirrored a larger debate in American politics. People were convinced in 2020 crime was getting worse. But when you asked them if they themselves were more likely to be victimized, they weren’t noticeably more alarmed. Yes, homicides were increasing, but as a report last year from the center-left think tank Third Way noted, homicide is “the rarest of crimes.” Many other kinds of crime had gone down in 2020.

A number of theories have been offered for this phenomenon. One, popular on the left, is that Americans were simply overreacting to media hype about the rising murder rate, which was probably being driven by pandemic-related factors, such as increased stress, that would eventually fade. A second, favored on the right, is that a perverse effect of progressive prosecutors and anti-police activism has been to disincentivize people from reporting crimes for which no one will be caught or punished. A third isthat people were reacting to public disorder, from tent cities and open drug use to the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd. These things weren’t particularly dangerous to the average person, but they certainly were vivid, and they fed a narrative that things were spiraling out of control.

Now a new working paper from Maxim Massenkoff of the Naval Postgraduate School and Aaron Chalfin of the University of Pennsylvania suggests another explanation: Americans were becoming more anxious about crime because, by one important metric, it actually was increasing more broadly.

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That’s arguably what we should have assumed all along, since crime rates often rise and fall together. When they diverged during the pandemic, many people looked for some factor unique to homicide, such as more guns being on the street, psychological pressure from the pandemic, or diminished trust in the police. But there was always another possibility: Maybe the propensity to commit all sorts of crimes was rising, but the pandemic made it harder for most ordinary criminals to find victims.

Whenever commentators tried to soothe an anxious public with the news that rapes, robberies and burglaries were actually decreasing, other commentators — including me — pointed out that the opportunities for most crimes had fallen dramatically during the pandemic. Muggings are hard to accomplish if no one is on the street, and most burglars prefer not to invade occupied homes. But since murders tend to involve people who know each other, that countervailing pressure might not have suppressed the murder rate as much as other crimes.

This is where the work of Massenkoff and Chalfin comes in. Instead of just looking at the gross number of crimes, they looked at the ratio of crimes to the amount of time people spent in public. And they found that even though the number of crimes fell, the chance of being victimized if you were out on the street rose significantly: “In 2020, the risk of outdoor street crimes initially rose by more than 40% and was consistently between 10-15% higher than it had been in 2019 through the remainder of the year.”

There are some caveats to that finding: If the people who were out on the street are demographically or otherwise more likely to be victims of crime, that might skew the results. And their primary data covers only a few cities, so the results might not translate to other places. But, at very least, this looks like a plausible account of what happened over the past few years.

And we should reckon with it, because it points to an even grimmer corollary: If they are right, other crimes might surge the way homicides have as cities reopen and people return to the streets.

Whether that happens depends, first, on whether they are correct and, second, on why the crime surge happened in the first place. It’s possible that it is mostly a result of pandemic-driven factors — loneliness, boredom, fewer checks on intimate partner violence, or perhaps breakdowns of policing due to the exigencies of covid-19. If so, crime might slacken as the pressure of the pandemic does.

But it is also possible that it represents some more enduring factor. For example, after Floyd’s murder, community trust in the police might have plummeted, possibly making people more likely to settle scores on their own. Or police might have reacted to public anger by pulling back from active policing, creating more opportunities for crime.

The only way to know for sure is to wait and see. But we really cannot afford to wait before we start preparing for the possibility of higher crime rates. If the surge comes, we need to be ready with proactive measures to get it under control.