By Tarah Hodgkinson and Martin Andresen
This brief is based on the following paper: Hodgkinson, T., & Andresen, M.A. (2020). Show me a man or a woman alone and I’ll show you a saint: Changes in the frequency of criminal incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Criminal Justice, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2020.101706
1. What problem does your research address? Why is this significant?
Our research investigated crime patterns in Vancouver, BC, Canada, resulting from the COVID-19 social restrictions. These restrictions included social distancing, limiting large public gatherings, shifting to a work-from-home model where possible, and the limiting the operations of commercial establishments (moving businesses online and only allowing deliveries of products, particularly restaurants). These changes significantly altered the ways in which public space was used and the routine activities of most Vancouver-dwellers. Primarily, many people stayed home more frequently, worked online and did not go out for shopping and entertainment.
In essence, social restrictions altered opportunities for crime. Residents spent more time at home and were thus able to provide capable guardianship against burglary and vehicle theft. Alternatively, this time spent at home may increase opportunities for domestic violence. With the closure of commercial/retail outlets, these spaces lost guardianship and natural surveillance creating new opportunities for commercial burglary. As people spend less time (often no time) In entertainment areas, opportunities for theft, robbery and assault decrease.
The changes to the public environment as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions created more opportunities for some types of crime and less opportunities for other types of crime. This is consistent with routine activity theory and the opportunity approach (Cohen & Felson, 1979; Felson & Clarke, 1998). According to this theoretical framework, the primary mechanism that has changed is guardianship: people are at home guarding their property, homes are “guarding” people, and because people are not present at commercial and retail outlets, these spaces are experiencing less guardianship.
This research is important because it provides a natural experiment to test the predictions of the routine activity and crime opportunity approaches. More importantly, this research investigates the effects of social restrictions on crime patterns such that the public and the police can better prepare for similar changes to crime patterns as a result of future pandemics or other exceptional events that affect the public environment.
2. How did you conduct your research?
We conducted our research using open source criminal incident data provided by the Vancouver Police Department. These data include a variety of property crimes (commercial burglary, residential burglary, theft from vehicle, theft of vehicle, other theft (shoplifting, for example), mischief (property damage), and violence (which combines domestic violence, robbery and assault).
In our analyses, we considered the previous three years of data, rather than only including a few months prior to the social restrictions that began in mid-March 2020. Inclusion of criminal events from previous years is important to include in order to control for expected seasonal changes in crime patterns. For example, during the COVID-19 related restrictions, Vancouver was shifting from winter to spring, which typically increases the number of criminal events during this time period (Andresen & Malleson, 2013).
The statistical analysis used to investigate any changes in crime patterns was an interrupted time series, or structural break test. This statistical method allows for the identification of changes in trends over time. We used this test to identify changes in crime trends around the time of social restrictions (mid-March 2020) and compared them to changes in crime trends that occurred at the same time of the year in the previous two years. By analysing three years of data we were able to see if any changes that occurred in mid-March 2020 differed significantly from previous years in mid-March.
3. What are your major findings?
Our major findings were that crime patterns did in fact change during the restriction period in 2020 as compared to previous years at the same time period. This is consistent with the expectations based on routine activities and opportunity theory. Overall, there was a decrease in criminal incidents when crime would be expected to increase at this time. Violence and mischief, surprisingly, did not have any change in trend relative to changes in previous years. This was somewhat unexpected, particularly with domestic violence. However, as robbery and assault were expected to decrease and domestic violence was expected to increase, this measure may have remained stable as a result.
Theft of vehicle did not increase when it would be expected to do so based on previous years. Theft from vehicle and other theft (which includes shoplifting) also had significant decreases. Residential burglary did not have any notable differences in is crime trend, relative to previous years; however, this may be due to the low counts and rates of residential burglary in Vancouver more broadly (Hodgkinson & Andresen, 2019). Commercial burglary experienced an initial increase, likely due to a lack of guardianship, and a subsequent decrease that has been attributed to a quick responses of police arrests and target hardening (CBC, 2020).
4. What does your research mean for policy and practice?
Regarding policy and practice, this research is important for criminal justice and social service practitioners when operating within an extraordinary event. By better understanding the impacts of exceptional events, like a global pandemic, on crime opportunities and crime rates, this research can prepare police, policy makers and residents for future events. This could contribute to making cities safer during a crisis and in its aftermath. However, we have yet to know the full extent of the economic impact globally, with small businesses closing, and people potentially losing their livelihoods. This global pandemic may change the social and demographic nature of the city. This will undoubtedly affect local social processes and likely further affect motivation and behaviour. Continued investigation is need.
Andresen, M. A., & Malleson, N. (2013). Crime seasonality and its variations across space. Applied Geography, 43, 25 – 35.
CBC (2020, 15 April). 40 arrested as Vancouver sees surge in commercial break-ins since
COVID-19 measures began. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/
Cohen, L. E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 588 – 608.
Felson, M., & Clarke, R. V. (1998). Opportunity makes the thief: Practical theory for crime prevention. London, UK: Home Office, Policing and Reducing Crime Unit Research, Development and Statistics Directorate.
Hodgkinson, T., & Andresen, M. A. (2019). Changing spatial patterns of residential burglary and the crime drop: The need for spatial data signatures. Journal of Criminal Justice, 61, 90 – 100.