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A police officer patrolled the Santa Monica Pier last week near Los Angeles.

As Coronavirus Surges, Crime Declines in Some Cities

Early data suggests criminal incidents are down in several cities under stay-at-home orders.

Street cops and police union officials have been predicting a crime wave as cities across the country reduce low-level arrests and release inmates from jails to slow the spread of COVID-19.

But at least in some big cities, that’s not happening. In fact, in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco, recent data show big drops in crime reports, week over week. The declines are even more significant when we compare this year with the same time periods in the three previous years.

The decreases suggest that trying to contain COVID-19 is not a public safety threat in some big cities—at least for now.

A Dip in Crime

A Marshall Project analysis found that in some big cities, reported crime dropped in the week ending March 22 compared with the week before. When we compared crime numbers for this year with an average of the same weeks in previous years, the decrease is even more noticeable.

Source: Crime data from Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and San Francisco open data portals.
Note: Chicago’s data is available only up until March 19. The Marshall Project estimated the full week’s crime based on the average number of reports on that day of that week over the past three years.

We did not pick these cities at random: They all publish recent crime data that is easily accessible to the public on the internet. They also have had a significant number of coronavirus cases. But they are not representative of all urban areas, and the time periods are too brief to constitute any lasting crime trends. Still, the change in the number of reported crimes is startling in a week when attempts to contain the virus began to escalate.

Experts say the sudden crime decline is probably tied to the growing number of stay-at-home orders, which have been issued in more than 20 states and now cover a majority of Americans.

“So many people are sheltering in place, crimes of opportunities are dropping,” John MacDonald, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are fewer potential victims out there.” He cautioned against reading too much into the data, describing the drop in incidents as “episodic” rather than a long-term trend.

San Francisco data showed the biggest drop in crime reports, which fell 42 percent during the week of March 16. That’s when the city became the first metropolis in the United States to force residents to “shelter at their place of residence.”

Thefts dropped by 60 percent to 231 incidents that week. San Francisco police said they are focused on keeping thieves away from shuttered store-fronts, and have cops out patrolling shopping strips. “With fewer people out in public, there is the potential for closed businesses to be victimized by smash and grab type crimes,” said a department spokesman, Officer Robert Rueca.

The police department also began reducing low-level arrests and replacing them with tickets after San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju sent a letter to the city’s Police Chief William Scott, five days before the stay-at-home mandate took effect, imploring officers to “reduce all unnecessary contact with the community.” At the time, Raju’s request that cops suspend arresting people for misdemeanor and non-violent felonies seemed unlikely.

Two weeks later, police departments around the country—from Philadelphia to Fort Worth, Texas—have directed cops to stop arresting people for low-level crimes. “Sometimes the far-fetched idea is the right idea,” Raju told The Marshall Project.

Chicago, a city known for violence, told cops on March 24 to reduce traffic and pedestrian stops because of the public health risk. The city has published figures for only part of the prior week—through March 19. The Marshall Project projected the full week’s crime based on the previous three years’ average for each day of that week. This is almost certainly an overcount, given the city issued its own “shelter-in-place” order on Saturday. Still, The Marshall Project’s analysis found a 13 percent drop in crime.

“This has put a calm on the violence—it’s amazing what is not happening right now,” said Charles Perry, who became a community organizer after serving time in prison and now works with the Chicago Police Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office to counsel young gang members.

But people in Chicago are still shooting each other. The Marshall Project found that the number of shootings dropped by 50 percent over a four day-period last week compared to the week before. Then on Wednesday, the Chicago Sun Times reported that shootings were rising again; 12 people were shot in one day alone.

Andy Papachristos, a Northwestern University sociologist specializing in gun violence, said the pandemic won’t slow down the shootings, which he says are spurred by entrenched poverty. “Climate change and infectious disease are not violence prevention strategies,” Papachristos said. “Nothing changes with shelter-in-place. Those that are involved in gun violence are already high-risk in every dimension imaginable: health, housing, employment, homelessness.”

Crime data in Los Angeles and Detroit show similar downward trends for the week ending on March 22. Both cities reported drops hovering around 20 percent.

In New York City, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea this week touted a big crime decline, telling the Police Executive Research Forum, a think-tank, that “it has dropped off the planet,” since the city started social distancing two weeks ago. “I’m sure that there is still crime happening that isn’t being reported, but overall we’ve seen a pretty steep drop in crime,” Shea said.

Numbers released by the New York Police Department on Friday show a 24 percent drop in major crimes in the week ending March 22, the first day of the city’s stay-at-home order. Shootings dropped by more than 30 percent and were down nearly a quarter compared to the same week last year.

Any drop in crime in New York comes after an increase for most of 2020, said Andrew Costello, a former NYPD commander who is now an assistant professor at the New York Institute of Technology.

Right now, what’s happening “is similar to what happened after 9/11,” Costello said. “There was very little crime after the towers came down. People are shocked, they are staying at home and no one wants to rob each other.”

This story has been updated with new New York City crime figures released Friday.

Simone Weichselbaum Twitter Email was a staff writer who focused on issues pertaining to federal law enforcement and local policing. She also chaired the organization’s diversity & inclusion committee. She was a police reporter for the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Daily News and holds a graduate degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.