Property crime has a significant impact on communities. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) data released in September 2011 shows how many more people were victims of property crime than violent crime in 2010. Overall, U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 3.8 million violent victimizations, 14.8 million property victimizations and 138,000 personal thefts (picked pockets and snatched purses).
The good news is fewer people were victims of violent crime (violent victimization dropped 13 percent) and property crime (property victimization dropped 6 percent). Why property crime has not gone up nationwide is somewhat subject to debate, and the extent to which recent economic conditions have impacted property crime might seem surprising.
Conventional wisdom would suggest property crime rates go up as the economy turns down. Richard Rosenfeld, Curators Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, adds that’s also what a great deal of research on past recessions has shown.
Yet, he points out, “Historically, we have seen high rates of unemployment and high inflation. Today, we’re in a period of high rates of unemployment but very low rates of inflation. In 2009, in the middle of the recession, prices declined and inflation went negative.
“To find an economic downturn that was characterized by deflation, negative inflation, you have to go back to the Great Depression, which was more serious, but also characterized by deflation. After a few years of crime rising at the start of the Great Depression, crime rates came down, and we may be seeing that same phenomenon again.”
A secondary economic factor for property crime not increasing may be high unemployment. Although a lack of income may lead someone to take what they cannot buy, Rosenfeld explains when unemployment rates are high people also are more likely to be at home, acting as guardians of their homes and perhaps their neighbors’ homes. When people leave their homes during an economic downturn, he points out they often carry items of less value with them, making them less attractive targets for street robbers.
Data-driven law enforcement
While economic factors are at play, law enforcement is also working smarter, trying new approaches and following crime data closely.
The Shawnee (Kan.) Police Department has seen a dramatic change in property crime rates since the agency started using Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS), a strategy endorsed by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Bureau of Justice Assistance and National Institute of Justice.
Christopher Bruce, an analytical specialist for DDACTS, compares Shawnee’s first year using DDACTS to the agency’s five-year average: Auto thefts fell 61 percent in the target zone, compared to a decline of 24 percent in the rest of the city. Auto burglaries fell 19 percent in the target zone, compared to an increase of 16 percent in the rest of the city. Residential burglary fell 20 percent in the target zone, compared to an increase of 2 percent in the rest of the city. Total property crime fell 25 percent in the target zone, compared to a decline of 15 percent in the rest of the city.
“These statistics indicate both significant declines in the target zone and statistically significant differences between the target zone and the rest of the city, showing that Shawnee’s DDACTS implementation undoubtedly had an effect on these crimes,” says Bruce.
Prior to DDACTS, Shawnee had district assignments for officers and occasionally engaged in hotspot policing for tactical and strategic problems. In July 2010, Shawnee began targeting a specific area based on overlapping crime and crash data.