Crime and coronavirus: social distancing, lockdown, and the mobility elasticity of crime

Crime and coronavirus: social distancing, lockdown, and the mobility elasticity of crime

Eric Halford, Anthony Dixon, Graham Farrell, Nicolas Malleson & Nick Tilley | Crime Science

Crime and coronavirus: social distancing, lockdown, and the mobility elasticity of crime

Eric Halford, Anthony Dixon, Graham Farrell, Nicolas Malleson & Nick Tilley | Crime Science


"Governments around the world restricted movement of people, using social distancing and lockdowns, to help stem the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We examine crime effects for one UK police force area in comparison to 5-year averages. There is variation in the onset of change by crime type, some declining from the WHO ‘global pandemic’ announcement of 11 March, others later. By 1 week after the 23 March lockdown, all recorded crime had declined 41%, with variation: shoplifting (− 62%), theft (− 52%), domestic abuse (− 45%), theft from vehicle (− 43%), assault (− 36%), burglary dwelling (− 25%) and burglary non-dwelling (− 25%). We use Google Covid-19 Community Mobility Reports to calculate the mobility elasticity of crime for four crime types, finding shoplifting and other theft inelastic but responsive to reduced retail sector mobility (MEC = 0.84, 0.71 respectively), burglary dwelling elastic to increases in residential area mobility (− 1), with assault inelastic but responsive to reduced workplace mobility (0.56). We theorise that crime rate changes were primarily caused by those in mobility, suggesting a mobility theory of crime change in the pandemic. We identify implications for crime theory, policy and future research."


"In response to the coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic, governments around the world legislated for the cessation of non-essential contact. With the introduction of social distancing and lockdowns, it was soon apparent that the unanticipated effects upon crime could be dramatic (Farrell and Tilley 2020, Ashby 2020, Bump 2020, Mohler et al. 2020). Here we study the effects on crime in the days leading up to, and following, the introduction of a national stay-at-home lockdown. While we focus on one UK police service area, the methodological approach may be more broadly applicable, and the substantive findings of relevance for comparisons both to other regions of the UK and other countries with similar socio-demographic and economic profiles.

The nature of the dramatic changes to mobility that occurred allow us to approach the study as a natural experiment. We use crime data spanning 5 years to compare rates in 2020 to what would have been expected based on trends from previous years. In addition, we use Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports to compare area-based mobility to crime. Specifically, we compare mobility change in the retail sector to changes in shoplifting and other theft, mobility change in residential areas to burglary dwelling and theft from vehicles, and mobility in retail and recreation areas to changes in assault. This allows us to calculate the mobility elasticity of crime (MEC) as the percentage change in crime due to a one percent change in mobility.

Our approach is informed by the theoretical perspectives of crime science, particularly the lifestyle and routine activities approaches (Hindelang et al. 1978, Cohen and Felson 1979) that identify crime opportunities as central (Clarke 2012). We view mobility as a core determinant of the level of crime opportunities. Changes to mobility affect lifestyles and the likelihood of interaction between potential targets (including victims) and potential offenders, and the likelihood of surveillance and potential guardianship by others. In theory, covid-19 policies to restrict movement will affect different crime types in different ways (Farrell and Tilley 2020). For instance, increased time spent in the home might be expected to increase the opportunities for domestic violence and child abuse to occur, because they are often committed by parents or guardians, and potential victims and offenders are spending more time together. At the same time, however, increased time spent in the home might increase guardianship and surveillance against burglary. Reduced attendance at workplaces would be expected to reduce workplace harassment, and reduced travel on public transport would be expected to reduce the many types of crime that occur on such transport or around transport stations. Widespread closure of shops would be expected to reduce shoplifting. With people spending greater work and leisure time online, the opportunity for crimes to occur via the increases in virtual mobility. Hence changes to mobility would not impact uniformly but, rather, different types of crimes would be affected in different ways in different contexts, and we explore some specifics further in what follows.

The timeline and context for the study is as follows. On Wednesday 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared covid-19 a global pandemic.Footnote1 Five days later, on Monday 16 March, the UK government recommended nationwide cessation of all non-essential travel, followed by, on Friday 20 March, an announcement that all bars, cafes, restaurants, and gyms were required to close that day. On Monday 23 March, a national ‘lockdown’ was announced. Lockdown rules required everyone to stay home at all times with four exceptions; Exercise (alone or with members of the same household); Shopping for basic necessities; Any medical need, including providing care for a vulnerable person, and; Travel to or from work, but only when a person cannot work from home (Cabinet Office 2020). These four dates are shown as vertical lines in timeline charts in this study, and are labelled in Fig. 2.

We find distinct declines in many recorded crime rates in the 2 weeks before, and in the period immediately following lockdown. The sequencing of the onset of these declines tracked the timeline of events, but with different crime types responding to different types of mobility restriction at different times. While personal theft and theft from vehicles declined from 11 March, shoplifting and assaults declined from the introduction of restrictions on non-essential travel from 16 March, while public disorder and criminal damage declined from the closure of bars, restaurants and other such facilities on 20 March. We find preliminary evidence of pre-lockdown spikes in shoplifting, likely facilitated by the extra cover in crowded stores, and a lesser spike in assaults immediately before the lockdown, likely due to anticipatory ‘last chance’ socialising. The first week of lockdown brought more substantial decreases in many types of recorded crime.

We develop a metric to compare the changes in crime and mobility, which we term the mobility elasticity of crime. We find shoplifting responsive (if technically inelastic) to change in mobility in the retail sector, and burglary highly responsive to increased mobility in residential areas. We find, and vehicle-related theft responsive, assault inelastic though still somewhat responsive to changed mobility in the workplace sector, and in residential and retail/recreation areas, respectively. The primary conclusion of this study is that changes to mobility were the primary cause of changes to the rates of many types of crime in the early stages of the pandemic."

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Crime and coronavirus: social distancing, lockdown, and the mobility elasticity of crime, Eric Halford, Anthony Dixon, Graham Farrell, Nicolas Malleson & Nick Tilley, Crime Science, 2020