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. 

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.