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, 1.4 million serious violent victimizations (rape or sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault), 14.8 million property victimizations and 138,000 personal thefts (picked pockets and snatched purses). That means 15 per 1,000 people were victims of violent crime while 120 per 1,000 people were victims of property crime.
The good news is fewer people were victims of violent crime (violent victimization dropped 13 percent) and property crime (property victimization dropped 6 percent). In fact, violent and property victimization rates fell to their lowest levels since the early 1990s. The property crime victimization rate fell 62 percent, from about 319 victimizations per 1,000 households in 1993.
The NCVS includes offenses that are not reported to police, as well as those that are and complement those from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, which measures crimes reported to law enforcement agencies across the nation. Recent UCR data shows the five-year trend, comparing 2010 data with that of 2006, revealed a 9.3-percent drop in property crime.
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, 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 working smarter, trying new approaches and very closely following the crime data.
The Shawnee, Kan. police department has made a dramatic difference 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 W. 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.
“All of 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,” Bruce reports.
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 C. Smith likens the DDACTS approach to sending six fishermen who need to catch as many fish as they can in six to eight hours to fish in 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.
Employing high-visibility enforcement, Shawnee officers devote a minimum of 30 minutes per 8- to 10-hour shift to the DDACTS target area. In its first year using DDACTS, the Shawnee Police Department devoted 1,219 enforcement hours to the target area, which lead to 2,691 citations, 922 warnings and 151 arrests.
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 tracking down stolen property and where it came from 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 (Wisconsin) Police Department, entered a suspect’s name in 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. Carter was also able to obtain a description of the jewelry, and know where the suspect was selling the jewelry and 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 Police Department (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. Overall in their first year, IMPD’s recovery rate increased by 86 percent and the value of property recovered skyrocketed by 168 percent. Today businesses report transactions electronically to LeadsOnline and officers can access the information online. Being able to search items quickly is important, Fishburn says, because Indianapolis has a 7-day police hold. When an item comes into a pawn shop, the pawn shop must wait 7 days before selling the item. In the past, many times the 7 days had passed before police could pick up suspected stolen items and the items had been sold, he says.
“If we can attach a hold to a property before it gets sold, it solves a lot of problems and many more cases,” Fishburn says, noting there is no cost to the businesses for the program.
IMPD monitors transactions from scrap metal yards to reduce the theft of catalytic converters and other items. The agency is also working to change local ordinances to have others, including cash for gold stores, report transaction information online.
Another tool from LeadsOnline that IMPD uses is eBay First Responder. A partnership between LeadsOnline and eBay makes it possible for law enforcement to 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. BWI systems are used by 4,000 stores in North America. 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 Maryland’s first two years using RAPID as its central repository, the state’s member agencies reported 1,149 arrests, 1,242 cases closed and $6.28 million in stolen property recovered.
In October 2011, for example, St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office and Maryland State Police (MSP) used RAPID to identify two suspects selling large amounts of jewelry, some of which was wanted in connection to a burglary. Investigation led to the closure of two additional burglaries, the arrest of two suspects and the recovery of jewelry valued at $13,750.
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 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 training annually. Brady encourages dealers when they suspect something is wrong to type a comment in RAPID.
While dealers have different licensing bodies, any sworn officer can enforce the regulations and laws. MSP also trains law enforcement officers from throughout the state so they understand the functionality of the system, from helping officers spot patterns to alerting dealers when something has been reported stolen.
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.
Stopping stolen goods buyers as prices go up
As prices go up, Rosenfeld predicts stolen goods, which are cheap goods, should be in greater demand.
Rosenfeld 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.