How the pandemic upended crime patterns

A police officer wearing a face mask responds to a fire in downtown Los Angeles on April 21, 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

An analysis of April 2020 crime and mobility data from eight US cities shows that while crime generally declined since the onset of pandemic-related restrictions, cities that curbed mobility the most experienced more pronounced changes in certain types of crimes.

The cities we chose to analyse – Baltimore, Chattanooga, Chicago, Detroit, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and St. Louis – represent a subset of US cities with relatively higher violent and property crime rates, as well as cities with relatively large populations. These cities also made their April 2020 and historical crime stats available online.

Violent Crime

In most of the cities we examined, violent crimes including homicide, rape, assault and robbery decreased more sharply than property crimes. Mobility trends data provided by Google suggest that in cities where widespread stay-at-home orders were in effect, there were fewer opportunities for these types of crimes to take place.

 

In Little Rock, Arkansas, however, residents were not staying at home as much as in other cities. Among the cities we looked at, Little Rock had the smallest reduction in visits to retail and recreation locations, the smallest decrease in public transit usage and the smallest change in travel to the workplace. 

Little Rock was the only city we examined located in a US state that did not impose a mandatory stay-at-home order.

Little Rock was also the only city we looked at where violent crimes increased in April 2020 when compared to April 2019. The city recorded a 95% increase in robberies and a 250% increase in homicides last month compared to the same month last year.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, had the second-lowest reduction in retail and recreation travel and public transit usage among the cities we examined. It also saw the second lowest reduction in assaults and robberies.

While official reports of sexual and other assaults were down across all of the cities we looked at, unofficial calls for help to abuse hotlines were up. The New York Times reported that during the first week of March, 383 calls were made to domestic violence hotlines in Chicago. By the end of April, weekly calls were up to 549.

This suggests that stay-at-home orders may in fact be increasing the number of assaults happening within the home, even if victims may not feel safe reporting the incidents to law enforcement.

Property Crime

Properties crimes decreased an average of 16% across the cities we examined. Property crimes include a variety of thefts, such as burglary (which usually entails breaking and entering), motor vehicle theft, and larceny, which is theft not of a vehicle and not involving the illegal entering of a structure.

Chattanooga residents, however, saw an 8% increase in property crime. Chattanooga was the only city we looked at that recorded more property crimes in April 2020 when compared to April 2019. Again, we note that Chattanooga had the second lowest reduction in retail, recreation and workplace travel among the eight cities. 


In Philadelphia, residents did a more thorough job staying at home in April. They reduced their travel to retail and recreation destinations by more than 50%, workplace travel by 54%, and use of public transit went down nearly 60%. 

Accordingly, Philadelphia saw its lowest five-year numbers in larcenies and burglaries. However, staying at home more did not protect residents from all types of property crime. Motor vehicle thefts soared in the city in April 2020, a 68% increase when compared to last April and easily the city’s highest count in the last five years.

Additionally, we took a closer look at two cities that differentiate crime statistics between residential and commercial burglaries and found that in both Philadelphia and St. Louis, residential burglaries were down and commercial burglaries were up.

City-by-city findings

While there were noticeable trends in crime rates in April of this year, each city experienced those changes a little differently. Here’s a look at what the data say about each city.

Baltimore

We looked at Baltimore because it had the fourth-worst violent crime rate among large US cities in 2019.

In April 2020, Baltimore saw declines in all types of crime. Both violent and property crimes were lower than they’d been in the past five years. 

 

The crime with the largest decline was sexual assault, down 68% from last April. 

Thefts, both vehicle and non-vehicle, were also down nearly 40%.

Homicides saw the least decline. There were 2 fewer people murdered in Baltimore this April than there were in April 2019.

Baltimore reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 42% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 19% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 49%. Usage of public transportation was down 41%.

Chattanooga

Chattanooga made it on our list because it had relatively high violent and property crimes rates for 2019. Chattanooga had the 19th worst violent crime rate in 2019 among large US cities, and the 11th worst property crime rate.

Chattanooga saw increases in April arsons, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts. Its motor vehicle thefts were higher this April than in any April in the last five years.

 

Burglary and all types of violent crimes decreased, though only burglaries decreased to levels below those found in the past five years.

Chattanooga reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 37% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 9% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 43%. Usage of public transportation was down 36%.

Chicago

Chicago made it onto our list because it has the third largest population of any US city.

In Chicago, incidents of arson and homicide have remained relatively stable, while all other types of crimes have fallen substantially and are at their lowest when compared to all Aprils since 2016.

 

Chicago saw its sharpest declines in larceny and sexual assault. There were nearly half as many of each crime in April 2020 as compared to 2019.

Chicago reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 48% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 17% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 53%. Usage of public transportation was down 60%.

Detroit

Detroit made it onto our list because it recorded the third-highest violent crime rate among large US cities in 2019. Complete 2016 crime data were not available for Detroit.

Detroit saw a decrease in all types of crime, with a nearly equal percent decline in both property and violent crimes. Violent crimes reduced by 24% and property crimes reduced 22% when compared to last April.

 

Detroit saw its lowest April crime numbers for all crimes except arson since 2017.

Detroit reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 51% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 20% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 58%. Usage of public transportation was down 57%.

Little Rock

Little Rock made it onto our list because it had relatively high violent and property crimes rates for 2019. Little Rock is ranked sixth worst in terms of violent crime and fifth worst for property crime among large US cities.

April motor vehicle thefts in Little Rock had been declining since 2017, but April 2020 saw a 12% increase when compared to April 2019 numbers.

 

Homicides were the highest they’d been in the past five Aprils, while burglaries and larcenies were the lowest.

Little Rock reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 31% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 5% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 38%. Usage of public transportation was down 32%.

Los Angeles

We looked at Los Angeles because it has the second largest population of any US city.

April violent crimes have been declining over the past five years in Los Angeles. 2020 saw the largest decline yet: there were 16% fewer violent crimes in LA in April 2020 as compared to April 2019.

 

Larceny and robbery are at five-year lows for April, down nearly 25% from last April. However, motor vehicle theft is at a five-year high, up 46%.

Los Angeles reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 52% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 22% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 49%. Usage of public transportation was down 53%.

Philadelphia

Philadelphia made it onto our list because it is the sixth largest US city.

While violent crime as a whole is down in Philadelphia, homicides are up. Philadelphia saw 41% fewer sexual assaults, 22% fewer robberies and 20% fewer assaults, but 18% more homicides this April as compared to April 2019.

 

Motor vehicle thefts are also up from last April. There were 68% more vehicles stolen in Philadelphia this April, the largest number in the last five years.

Philadelphia reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 51% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 22% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 54%. Usage of public transportation was down 59%.

St. Louis

St. Louis made it onto our list because it had high violent and property crimes rates for 2019. St. Louis recorded the second-worst violent crime rate and seventh-worst property crime rate among large US cities last year.

St. Louis averaged 119 April robberies over the past four years. In April 2020, it saw only 77 robberies. 

 

April arsons were the highest they’ve been in St. Louis since 2016, when the city also saw 27 arsons.

Motor vehicle thefts are the highest they’ve been in the past five years.

Robbery, burglary and assaults are the lowest they’ve been in the past five years.

St. Louis reduced travel to retail and recreation destinations by 47% and travel to grocery and pharmacies by 7% in April. Travel to workplaces declined by 50%. Usage of public transportation was down 36%.

Notes on the data used to produce this story: The FBI differentiates simple assault from aggravated assault. For the purposes of this story, we have combined simple and aggravated assaults. The FBI also differentiates rape from other sexual assaults. For the purposes of this story, we have combined all types of sexual assault. In many cities, a single incident may involve multiple crimes. Therefore, totals of all types of crimes in a single city may exceed the total count of unique crimes. Also, Google mobility data are measured on the county level. Mobility trends attributed to cities are derived from county-level numbers.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric. 

 
 
 
 

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