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.
Shawnee PD Crime Analyst Susan Smith likens the DDACTS approach to sending six fishermen who need to catch as many fish as they can in 6 to 8 hours, to an area where fish tend to congregate. “It’s finding where and when in your city you have the highest volume of crime and the highest volume of crashes,” she describes. “It’s all based on data. There’s nothing to buy, no overtime. It’s very specific, directed patrol and an attempt to, in our case and in the case of most agencies, reduce stranger crime more than any other and at the same time reduce crashes.” (Total collisions fell 21 percent in the DDACTS target zone, compared to 1 percent in the rest of the city.)
Some agencies use Microsoft Access databases and Microsoft Excel to analyze the data, and then map it. Shawnee PD uses the ATAC Workstation for crime pattern analysis, predictive analytics, crime mapping and intelligence analysis, and Esri’s ArcView, now referred to as ArcGIS for Desktop Basic.
Bruce says, “The types of incidents that declined are exactly the ones you would expect to decline when you saturate an area with flashing lights: profit-motivated crimes, usually committed outdoors, by mobile offenders who must pass through key intersections to get to the crime locations.
“While it’s possible that high-volume offenders were among the 151 arrested, I think it’s far more likely that the police simply suppressed the opportunity for such offenses to occur—scared the offenders away, so to speak.”
Smith adds even after officers leave, there are ripple effects; people are mindful that the police were there and frequent the area.
Online help and electronic reporting
Leo Carter, treasurer/presenter for the International Association of Property Crimes, says law enforcement agencies have been successful in tracking down stolen property with the help of online property reporting systems and municipalities requiring second-hand stores (including pawn shops, jewelry stores and scrap metal yards) to enter transaction data into these systems. Commercial systems interface with the National Crime Information Center and state databases. If there’s a hit, officers receive an alert.
For example, when Carter, a detective with the Milwaukee (Wis.) PD, entered a suspect’s name into a national online system, LeadsOnline, he found almost $70,000 worth of jewelry had been sold to a Texas jeweler. The system helped Carter learn where the Milwaukee suspect was selling the stolen diamonds, obtain a description of the jewelry, find out where the suspect was selling the jewelry, and even find out how much the suspect was paid.
According to LeadsOnline Communications Director Lindsay Williams, LeadsOnline, with hundreds of millions of records from throughout the United States, is the nation’s largest online system used by law enforcement to recover stolen property, help stop meth makers, reduce metal theft and solve crimes. More than 1,900 local agencies use LeadsOnline, and businesses from all 50 states report to LeadsOnline.
The Pawn Unit in the Criminal Investigations Division of the Indianapolis Metropolitan PD (IMPD) uses LeadsOnline to monitor transactions at pawn shops and scrap metal yards. The agency has been using LeadsOnline since 2009, reports IMPD Sgt. Dennis Fishburn. Before that, the unit used an old mainframe system, and a clerk had to input data from paper pawn tickets. Within the first year of implementing LeadsOnline, IMPD reduced data entry of paper tickets by 82 percent, leading to a 90 percent increase in cases assigned to detectives. Today businesses report transactions electronically to LeadsOnline and officers can access the information online. Being able to search items quickly is important, as Indianapolis has a seven-day police hold.
“If we can attach a hold to a property before it gets sold, it solves a lot of problems,” Fishburn says, noting there is no cost to the businesses for the program.
IMPD also uses LeadsOnline’s eBay First Responder tool. A partnership between LeadsOnline and eBay lets law enforcement locate possible stolen merchandise listed for sale or sold on eBay. While eBay has a fraud investigations team, Williams says using eBay First Responder gives detectives instant access to information that would otherwise only be available through a subpoena or letterhead request. About 2,000 agencies use eBay First Responder Service.
Maryland started using RAPID (Regional Automated Property Information Database) as its statewide central repository for second-hand transactions in October 2009, when a state law went into effect for pawn and precious metal. RAPID is a system from Business Watch International (BWI), a company dedicated to providing computer applications to serve property owners, pawn and secondhand stores, and police agencies. RAPID is an updated version of the RPDSS (Regional Pawn Data Sharing System), which was developed using COPS technology grant funds, rolled out in 2004 to serve the Washington metropolitan area and became a 2006 IACP “Excellence in Technology Award” winner.
In July 2011, Anne Arundel County’s Sheriff’s Office got a RAPID hit on a stolen gun out of Norfolk, Va. The seller, who had used an Oklahoma address, was charged with theft of money from the Maryland pawn shop as well as being charged in the Virginia theft.
Mandated electronic reporting by dealers, which also include automotive dismantlers and scrap metal dealers, feeds the RAPID database, explains Maryland State Police (MSP) Lt. Dalaine Brady, assistant commander in the Planning and Research Division. To help ensure that the state is getting the data it needs and that the data is accurate, MSP visits every dealer and conducts annual training. Brady encourages dealers when they suspect something is wrong to type a comment in RAPID.
To track stolen property from retail outlets, MSP plans to use SIRAS P.I. (Product Information). Law enforcement using the RAPID system have a SIRAS module built in, however RAPID is not needed to use the property crime-fighting tool that’s free to law enforcement. The SIRAS P.I. national database has more than 3,800 subscribing law enforcement agencies and gives law enforcement officers real-time access to a company’s product database by serial number to help determine where and when products had been purchased, and if they may indeed have been stolen—either from an individual, from a retailer or during transit. Law enforcement officials and retailers additionally have the ability to report stolen items to the database.
Stop stolen goods buyers
As prices go up, Rosenfeld predicts stolen goods, which are cheap goods, should be in greater demand. He describes consumers who are willing to purchase something they think might have been stolen as people who think they’ve just gotten a good deal on a TV. Rarely are they serious criminals, he says.
“I don’t think it would require much for a lot of those folks to be dissuaded from purchasing stolen goods,” he says. Rosenfeld advises law enforcement to make it known in the community that officers are going to start to charge people with receiving stolen property, including stolen goods purchased via the Internet.
Backing up that claim, law enforcement can reduce the demand for stolen goods as well as the incentive to steal.