Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint

Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint

Tarah Hodgkinsona, Martin A. Andresen | Journal of Criminal Justice

Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint:
Changes in the frequency of criminal incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tarah Hodgkinsona, Martin A. Andresen | Journal of Criminal Justice


Objectives: To investigate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the frequency of various crime types (property, violent, and mischief) in Vancouver, Canada.

Methods: Crime data representing residential burglary, commercial burglary, theft of vehicle, theft from vehicle, theft, violence, and mischief are analysed at the city level using interrupted time series techniques.

Results: While COVID-19 has not had an impact on all crime types, statistically significant change has been identified in a number of cases. Depending on the crime type, the magnitude and direction of the change in frequency varies. It is argued that (mandated) social restrictions, shifted activity patterns and opportunity structures which are responsible for these findings.

Conclusions: We find support for changes in the frequency of particular crime types during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is important for criminal justice and social service practitioners when operating within an extraordinary event.

1. Introduction

The nature of social life has changed as a result of COVID-19. Emerging out of Wuhan, a city of over 11 million people in the province of Hubei, China, the highly infectious respiratory illness quickly spread to other parts of the globe (Readfern, 2020). Within a few months of the start of 2020, several nations locked down in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus in an increasingly globalized world. Borders were closed, travel was restricted, businesses were shuttered, and everyone was advised to wash their hands and “#stayhome.” The nature of work and the economy changed dramatically. 

COVID-19 led to an unprecedented shift in the social structure of global cities. As the world went into isolation, social life transformed. In many parts of the world, only essential workers (health care providers, front-line officers, food services, etc.) were permitted to leave their homes to work. Others were instructed to stay home except for health care, exercise, or a weekly trip for groceries. In many countries social gatherings were banned, and the streets emptied. 

The research on crime and exceptional events (natural disasters, terrorist attacks, riots, and pandemics) has demonstrated that a shift in collective behavior can also lead to shifts in criminal behavior (Barton, 1969; Drabek, 1986). While several explanations are offered for this shift in criminal behavior, we suggest that as the opportunity structure for crime changes, so too does the prevalence of crime. Exceptional events, like a pandemic, act as a natural experiment, because they change the structure of routine activities that can reorganize how offenders, victims, and capable guardians converge in time and space. For example, if people are staying at home, their guardianship over their residence would improve making these targets more difficult to victimize. 

Alternatively, as work and life shift online, new targets or victims may emerge for motivated offenders. Certain types of violent crime may increase (e.g. domestic violence) as the offender and victim converge for longer periods of time, while other crime types may decrease (e.g. robbery and assault) as offenders and victims are unable to converge in the same way as before the event. 

The current study explores the shift in criminal behavior across crime types in Vancouver, Canada during the shutdown period in early 2020. Canada, operating under a liberal government, moved very quickly to close borders and help Canadians abroad return home.

Canada was well positioned to address COVID-19 quickly. In 2003, after the SARS epidemic, a number of recommendations were made to better prepare Canada for future health crises. Importantly, this included the creation of the Public Health Agency of Canada, which led the response to COVID-19 in 2020, including rapid response plans to isolate Canadians (Webster, 2020). The SARS outbreak also resulted in Canada's federal emergency law – The Quarantine Act – passed in 2005, which can allow the federal government to quarantine Canadians. This means that Canada went into lockdown efficiently and, arguably, effectively in comparison to other nations.

This creates an opportunity to explore the preliminary effects of this lockdown on crime trends in one of Canada's major cities, with the intention of determining if the shift in opportunity structures have changed crime trends and to improve planning for safety and crime prevention for potential further outbreaks of the pandemic and future exceptional events. This research contributes to a growing literature on crime trends and exceptional events, suggesting that addressing the opportunity structures presented by particular exceptional events, the social costs of these events can be reduced.

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Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint: Changes in the frequency of criminal incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tarah Hodgkinsona, Martin A. Andresen, Journal of Criminal Justice, 2020