The Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Crime in the United States

Dr. E.C. Beuck
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The Coronavirus (COVID-19) is largely believed to have originated in Wuhan, China in late December of 2019, with it rapidly spreading throughout the world by the Spring of 2020. Faced with pandemic, state-level governments in the United States gradually issued stay-at-home orders by the end of March 2020. Though primarily meant to constrain the spread of the virus, the lockdowns would go on to have massive effects on life in the United States that was not originally predicted. Though the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over in our country, researchers have already begun preliminary examinations into its effect on a variety of phenomena. Perhaps one of the most interesting is its impact on crime.

Impacts on Crime in General

Dr. David S. Abrams of the University of Pennsylvania Law School recently produced a published early empirical look into the impact of the COVID pandemic on crime in the United States. In the article, he discusses how the pandemic has had a large impact across a wide range of types of crime.

  • Decline in drug crimes by about 65% on average in the cities examined
  • Thefts down by 28%
  • Simple Assaults down by 33%
  • Rapes down by 39%
  • Decline in violent and property crime by 19% overall

Yet there were also some crimes that have been affected in the opposite direction or simply unaffected.

  • Commercial burglaries rose by 38%
  • Car thefts rose in some cities dramatically
  • Homicides and shootings seem to have been unaffected

The impact in some cities is startling. Pittsburgh, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Chicago all saw drops in crime by at least 35%. Dr. Abrams suggests that two sets of evidence support the impact of COVID-19 on crime to be real. The first piece of evidence he points to is that there was not a large change in the share of crime reported by the police as compared to the public, at least in the two cities that reported on this data. In addition, in terms of Philadelphia, evidence suggests that the drop in crime varied as a function of the distance from closed bars for the crimes of simple assaults, thefts, and robberies, but not for drug crimes which were unlikely to be impacted. Overall, both these points of support would suggest that COVID-19 truly did have a measurable impact on crime rates around the country.

Dr. John H. Boman IV of Bowling Green State University and Dr. Owen Gallupe of the University of Waterloo also set out to examine crime rates in terms of the degree that they have changed as a result of the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Though they recognize that there has been an overall decline in crime, they argue that this decrease may be in due in large part to the drop in minor crimes that tend to be committed by groups of peers. Drawing from the research of others, they point out how roughly half of the crimes in the United States are committed by young offenders, and it is the reduction in these common offenses that is the main driving factor as to why overall crime appears to have decreased in the country following the lockdowns.

Further supporting their argument, they point out how crimes that are committed without co-offenders, such as serious battery and homicide, have either remained the same or increased in the country. As such they caution that presenting COVID-19 lockdowns as having beneficial impacts on crime rates around the country obscures the true story of what is going on. Given the work presented in both these publications, we might well expect crime rates to return near to normal once measures combatting COVID-19 fully abate.

Impacts on Hate Crimes

Another area of crime that has received some attention following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is hate crimes. Dr. Angela R. Gover of the University of Colorado Denver, Dr. Shannon B. Harper of Iowa State University, and Dr. Lynn Langton of RTI International, set out in their research to examine the incidence of anti-Asian hate crimes over the course of the pandemic. They note that institutional-level racist and xenophobic rhetoric targeting Asian Americans in particular contributed to an increase in hate crimes over the course of the past two years.

In seeking to elaborate support for their argument, they begin with a discussion of specific racist rhetoric at the highest levels of the federal government noted in prior research as having helped set the stage for the horrible treatment of many Asian Americans. Former President Trump himself publicly used the terms "Chinese Virus" and various variations of that to reference COVID-19 during the months of March and May in 2020. More startling was the image that was captured during the March 19th press conference where the former President's notes showed the "corona" in "coronavirus" crossed out and replaced with "Chinese" instead. Yet this behavior and rhetoric was not unique only to the former President either. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo often utilized the term "Wuhan Virus" to refer to the illness. The authors also point out how it caught the public's attention that an unnamed White House staffer supposedly even used the term "kung flu."

All that being said, the blame cannot be placed upon the former President and his administration alone. According to the authors, before these remarks were even made, racist acts and harassment had already seen an uptick against Asian Americans, though it only continued to increase through March and April of 2020. Other evidence they cite shows a strong relationship between COVID-19 and an increase in anti-Chinese sentiment, such as discriminatory treatment to the general Asian community as well as Chinese restaurants.

Even though the former President, his administration, and other elected officials would tone down their rhetoric, there had already been a lot of damage done to the lives of Asian Americans across the country. While data regarding hate crimes will not be available to the public until late 2021, the range of rhetoric and hate crime incidents the authors mention in their research nonetheless paints a chilling picture of just some of what has occurred. Incidents of verbal harassment, physical assault, even stabbings and an attack with acid all suggest hate crimes against our fellow citizens can easily be tied to the pandemic.

Eventually We Will Know More

Though the months and years ahead will gradually give us a clearer look into the overall impacts of the pandemic on crime in our country, the work already being done has made it clear that, while some crime has gone down, the effects have not all been positive. Like many of you, I hope every day for the end of the pandemic to come soon. Until then, stay safe out there.

Citations of the research discussed in this article, available to the public online if you search by the title:

Abrams, David S. 2021. "COVID and crime: An early empirical look." Journal of Public Economics 194: 104344.

Boman, John H. and Owen Gallupe. 2020. "Has COVID-19 changed crime? Crime rates in the United States during the pandemic." American Journal of Criminal Justice 45 (4): 537-545.

Gover, Angela R., Shannon B. Harper, and Lynn Langton. 2020. "Anti-Asian hate crime during the COVID-19 pandemic: Exploring the reproduction of inequality." American Journal of Criminal Justice 45 (4): 647-667.

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Holding a PhD in Political Science, I write about current events and on political topics related to international relations, international law, conflict both between and within states, and the interactions between technology and politics.

Washington, DC

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