May 16, 2020


What We Know – and Don’t Know – About Crime During the Pandemic

Dear PERF members,

This past Tuesday, the PERF Daily COVID-19 Report examined how the coronavirus pandemic may be impacting crime. We surveyed a cross-section of 30 U.S. jurisdictions – including many of the largest cities and a number of mid-sized communities – to get detailed numbers on their reported crime levels, calls for service, and arrests.  

We asked police departments for data on the 28-day period ending April 12, 2020, a period that included the release of national guidelines on slowing the pandemic and the imposition of many stay-at-home orders by the states.  And we compared that 2020 data with the same period in 2019.

This wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive examination of crime and the pandemic. But our analysis did reveal some interesting things about what we know – and what we don’t yet know – about how COVID-19 is affecting crime.


As businesses closed and most people stayed at home, crime – and especially violent crime – did not decline evenly or everywhere.

Overall violent crime was down in 18 of the 30 cities we surveyed, but it increased in the other 12. Homicides fell in 9 jurisdictions but rose in 9 others (they were unchanged in 12 cities). Some cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago, had sizable reductions in the number of murders. But others, including Nashville, Detroit, and Baltimore, saw substantial increases.

What this says to me (and what several police chiefs have told us) is that the pandemic has not dramatically altered traditional patterns of gang warfare, drug-related violence, and individuals using guns to settle personal disputes.

These serious, deeply entrenched problems continue to drive much of the violence in our communities.

Many crimes are a function of opportunity, especially during the pandemic.

Residential burglaries plummeted in almost every city as people stayed home, depriving criminals of access to unoccupied dwellings. But in many places, chiefs have reported that the drop in residential burglaries was more than offset by a surge in burglaries of businesses that have been shuttered. Burglaries rose in 13 of the cities we studied, with substantial increases in Seattle, Denver, and New York City.

Similarly, with fewer people on the street, we found that robberies declined in most cities.

But because people are not using their vehicles as much and cars  are remaining parked in the same location, auto thefts have surged in some communities. Vancouver, WA, Salt Lake City, and Austin all saw spikes in auto thefts.

As we return to normal after the pandemic, finding ways to reduce the opportunities for crime will be an important lesson to carry forward.

Some crimes,  such as domestic violence,  are underreported and difficult to measure.

We were unable to collect reliable statistics on domestic violence. In normal times, these crimes are often underreported, and that may be even more true now.  If victims are trapped at home with perpetrators under stay-at-home orders, they may find it difficult to contact the police without the perpetrator knowing about it.   



How is the reduction in proactive policing affecting crime?

The pandemic has prompted a number of measures designed to minimize arrests, in order to reduce the likelihood of officers contracting the COVID-19 virus as they arrest offenders and transport them for booking. Our data found that arrests for more serious (Part I) offenses decreased in two-thirds of the cities we surveyed. Several saw reductions of 50% or more.

And arrests for less serious (Part II) offenses were down sharply across the board. For many of these offenses, the police are issuing citations in lieu of arrests.

In addition, calls for service are down in 29 of the 30 jurisdictions PERF surveyed. And chiefs report that routine traffic enforcement has been dramatically scaled back.

We don’t know  whether  reductions in proactive policing are causing some types of crime to increase, but it is an important question to study.

Are repeat offenders causing a spike in some crimes?

We’ve heard from several sheriffs’ offices that are working to reduce their jail populations in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and staff. They are increasing the use of pre-arrest diversion and pretrial release programs, and are petitioning for the release of some offenders nearing the end of their sentences.

What the data don’t tell us is what impact, if any, these measures are having on crime.

As commercial burglaries surged in New York City, NYPD officials have expressed frustration over suspects like this serial burglar who are being arrested over and over again. Because the city is trying to minimize the number of people being detained, some serial offenders are being released back to the community and are committing more crimes almost immediately, often in the same neighborhoods.

In California, the Judicial Council, which oversees the state’s courts, issued a statewide order in early April temporarily setting bail at $0  for most misdemeanor offenses and some low-level felonies. Some police leaders are concerned that repeat offenses are on the rise and public safety is being jeopardized.

Proponents of these types of criminal justice reform measures see the situation differently. They argue that for every person who is released and goes on to commit additional crimes, there are numerous examples of pretrial defendants who are able to maintain their jobs and support their families because they are not sitting in jail, unable to afford even a modest bail amount. 

We don’t fully understand this dynamic and how it will play out during the pandemic and afterwards. But it is something that will be important to study as jurisdictions consider whether to continue some of the reform measures they have implemented during the pandemic.

Is crime being displaced – not geographically but among different crime types?

Another thing we don’t fully understand is whether crime is being displaced during the pandemic. I’m not talking about crime moving from one location to another, which is the traditional concept of “displacement.” Rather, are certain crimes being “displaced” by other types of offenses that may not be captured in the summary UCR statistics?

For example, our data found dramatic reductions in reports of larceny-theft offenses. Twenty-eight of the 30 jurisdictions had decreases; many of them were quite substantial.

But are some of these offenders shifting to other types of crime, such as online fraud and scams – crimes that tend to go unreported and which never show up in most crime tallies?

Creating a more complete and accurate picture of crime during the pandemic will require more than analyzing UCR statistics. To drill down on how much crime actually occurred and how traditional crime patterns may have changed will require approaches such as localized victimization surveys.

What impact will unemployment and other economic hardships have on crime?

The pandemic has prompted levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression, and economic activity overall has slowed to a crawl. That does not mean that the factory workers or retail clerks who lose their jobs today will become the burglars or bank robbers of tomorrow.

But the desperation that comes with this level of economic hardship could impact domestic violence, child abuse, and other types of crime. Understanding the relationships between economic issues and crime is particularly important right now.

The Need for Research

At this point, we don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. But as restrictions are gradually lifted and people begin to return to more normal routines, the opportunities for crime will undoubtedly change.

It will be important for police executives to stay on top of how crime patterns shift, and for the research community to help them better understand what is going on. Many epidemiologists are warning that next fall, we may see a new wave of COVID-19, which could bring new stay-at-home orders and a return to the crime patterns we’ve experienced over the last couple months.


Today marks the end of National Police Week. For the past 27 years, I have had the honor of participating in the Candlelight Vigil and reading names of officers newly engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Peering into the sea of candles and looking at the faces of those families who had lost a loved one, I am always reminded of the courage and selflessness of the men and women who become police officers.

This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NLEOMF was unable to hold an in-person Candlelight Vigil. In its place, the Memorial Fund team put together a first-ever virtual program. It is a beautiful and moving tribute to 307 heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities and country.

NLEOMF 32nd Annual Candlelight Vigil:

Thanks to all of you who have been helping PERF track what’s happening because of the COVID crisis.  The weekend clips are below.




Weekend Clips

National Institute of Justice: Evidence-Based Policing in 45 Small Bytes

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has released a report geared toward sheriffs and police chiefs that covers the basics of evidence-based policing and research. The report explains the what and why behind data and analysis through a collection of short essays on a series of topics.


CBS 60 Minutes: Ghost Guns: The build-it-yourself firearms that skirt most federal gun laws and are virtually untraceable

Under federal law, they require no background check or serial number, making ghost guns a growing weapon of choice for criminals.


The Atlantic: The Worst Situation Imaginable for Family Violence

When lockdown and shelter-in-place protocols aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 went into effect earlier this spring, they put many Americans into circumstances they previously could only have imagined. While for many families the situation has meant isolation and monotony, for those who live with their abusers it has been a nightmare. Under coronavirus social-distancing protocols, the worst-case scenario for people who live with an abuser has more or less materialized. Social workers, lawyers, and advocates have had to rapidly adjust their services in order to get help to domestic- and child-abuse victims who are trapped inside with their abusers.

It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would facilitate abuse so much as the ones we’ve been living under. For one thing, people are stressed. They’re getting sick, losing loved ones, or worrying about getting sick or losing loved ones. The income loss many have experienced only adds to the daily anxiety. Plus, school cancellations mean that many parents have lost their regular affordable child care. Financial strain has been linked to increases in the frequency and severity of domestic abuse, and a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 25 percent increase in child neglect and a 12 percent increase in physical abuse, one study found. Other research has suggested that the stress from catastrophic events like natural disasters can also increase the risk of domestic and family violence. All of this adds up to a potentially dangerous situation for those who live with their abusers—even before you consider the current lockdown protocols.

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