by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is a report from the Council on Criminal Justice on crime statistics during the COVID-19 pandemic. There certainly hasn’t been any lack of discussion of local and national crime trends over the past three years, but depending upon who you listen to, you may believe crime is up, down, or unchanged. The Council describes itself as “a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank and national invitational membership organization. Its mission is to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and build consensus for solutions based on facts, evidence, and fundamental principles of justice.” This report is the 10th in a series it has published on crime statistics since the pandemic began, in an attempt to build consensus around what is happening out there.
The report looks at violent crime, property crime, and drug offenses, based upon data published by U.S. cities. That data is not always consistently provided, and the Council calls that out: While overall it collected data from 35 cities, in some categories (such as gun assaults), only 11 published statistics. The lack of transparency on crime statistics — and why some cities might not want the public to know about the crime rate — is a separate but related problem.
Looking across all of the data, we see a couple of key trends. One that has been well-known for some time is that crime in general follows an annual cycle: it spikes in summer and recedes in winter. But looking back over the past three years, we can see that the summer of 2020 was a peak for violent crime, driven by the violent clashes between protesters and police in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. In particular, homicides and gun assaults spiked in 2020 and have been slowly trending down since then.
Aggravated assaults, those committed with a deadly weapon or that result in or threaten serious bodily injury, were already slowly trending up before the pandemic; that trend continued into 2020 and appears to have leveled off.
The domestic violence statistics are a bit surprising. Early in the pandemic lockdown, many predicted that domestic violence incidents were likely to grow; in fact, the statistics suggest the opposite: Domestic violence continued a slow downward trend.
The property crime statistics look very different, however. With more people staying home, residential burglaries dropped dramatically at the beginning of the pandemic, and have continued to slowly decrease. Non-residential burglary, which had been relatively steady pre-pandemic, dropped a bit in 2020, but in 2022, began returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Larceny — thefts without force or breaking and entering, such as shoplifting and thefts from motor vehicles, also dropped in 2020, but seem to be rising again as people resume normal patterns of being out in public.
Perhaps the most interesting and dramatic trend is that of motor vehicle theft, which was flat before the pandemic. But starting in 2020, motor vehicle thefts have risen dramatically, with a big spike starting about a year ago. Here in Seattle, motor vehicle thefts rose 73% between 2019 and 2022, though that pales in comparison to Aurora, Illinois, where they almost tripled. This happened despite continual improvements in auto security features — or perhaps in part because of them: The report shows that carjacking also grew dramatically over the past three years.
Given the high visibility of drug use in Seattle and other urban areas and the heavy news coverage of fentanyl trafficking and overdoses, it’s surprising to see that drug offenses have dropped dramatically since early 2020. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising at all: The statistics reflect arrests, and in many jurisdictions during the pandemic, the police took a lighter hand to drug law enforcement in order to keep the jail population low.
And that points to one of the challenges in interpreting this data: There are policy decisions related to arrests and charges for various crimes that influence whether the statistics reflect the true incidence rate. Further, if community members believe the police are not enforcing certain laws, then in some cases, they stop calling to report them altogether.
It’s also worth pointing out that national data can hide large local differences; homicides are an excellent example of this. In Raleigh, North Carolina, homicides increased 48% from 2021 to 2022; but over the same period of time, homicides in Richmond, Virginia, decreased by 40%.
The Seattle Police Department publishes annual reports on crime statistics; the 2022 report shows that the city is mostly following the national trend (homicides up; property crimes roughly flat). SPD also has an online crime dashboard that lets you explore the statistics in-depth.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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