What does COVID-19 mean for crime?
A version of this article first appeared on the Deloitte Middle East website
Covid-19 has impacted on every part of our society in ways that were hardly imaginable a month ago. This will be true of crime as well. What might police and other agencies concerned with Public Safety might expect alongside the very significant demands placed upon them enforcing the critical public health measures introduced to limit the spread of the virus.
Even in these worrying times traditional and social media highlights acts of individual kindness, and moments of joy. Whether it is the young person offering to do the shopping for an elderly neighbour, or impromptu concerts from the balconies of cities around the world. All serve to reinforce our faith in the innate generosity and ingenuity of humankind, which gives us the confidence that we will come through this. Which of course, we will.
However, the pandemic and the anxiety it causes along with the restrictions to travel and social activities bring with them opportunities for criminals. Given the unprecedented nature of current events it is impossible to find a comparable event from which we might draw conclusions but by looking at what academic research says about crime, events with similar features and early reports from police services globally we can start to build a picture of what to expect.
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, crime disproportionately impacts on the most vulnerable within our communities, for whom a criminal act could bring the most serious of consequences; and second it may help police and other agencies model and in some cases prioritize their services to respond to these threats.
One of most enduring frameworks for anticipating and preventing crime was developed by two American academics in the 1970s. Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen developed a theory that essentially says that for crimes to occur three things need to come together – someone who is motivated to offend, a criminal target and the lack of protection for that target. Underpinning this is the assumption that criminals make decisions by weighing the potential reward against the potential risk, based on the information they have. When they assess that reward outweighs the risk, they commit the crime.
If you start from the position that there is always someone who is motivated to commit crime, then the question is how and where the current crisis makes the other two elements more likely – or less likely – to occur and so provide the circumstances required for criminal activity. I would suggest that there are three features of this crisis that can provide opportunities for criminals:
Anxiety over Health
The nature of the crisis and the anxiety about one’s personal heath and that of loved ones is easily exploited. Interpol has already reported a significant increase in fake or counterfeit medical items. Disposable surgical masks, hand sanitizers and Covid-19 test kits being amongst the items being produced. Only this week the media reported that authorities in Ajman had closed down facilities making and selling face masks that did not meet the necessary standard. Many of these schemes take advantage of the relative anonymity of the internet to set up websites to market these counterfeit goods. Others take a step further, setting up fake website and e-commerce facilities to get payment for goods that never arrive or to secure access to banking details which are used to empty bank accounts. Interpol also cites reports of people purporting to be hospitals or public health agencies calling elderly people claiming that their relative is in hospital and being treated for Covid-19, and demanding payment of hospital bills saying that this is necessary before lifesaving treatment can be provided.
One of the impacts of this crisis is likely to be the formalization of remote working protocols and significant strengthening of cyber security measures. With so many people now working remotely to include school age children who are receiving tuition online, cyber criminals will look to exploit vulnerabilities in individual and corporate systems. Many law enforcement and cybersecurity organizations are reporting an increase in the detected number of malware and ransomware campaigns using Covid-19 materials to encourage the clicking of links necessary to infect computer systems. There have also been targeted attacks on hospital systems. Only last week the University Hospital in Brno in the Czech Republic, which hosts one of the largest 18 COVID-19 testing centers, needed to be shut down due to a ransomware attack. All surgeries were cancelled, and the authorities are now transferring the hospital’s coronavirus response capacity to other hospitals in the country.
Key to limiting the spread of the virus are the measures introduced to restrict movement and in some countries require people to stay at home. These measures, whilst critical from a public health perspective, could prove very difficult for victims of family violence. Domestic violence helplines in countries in lockdown are already reporting a spike in calls. Cases range from using the Covid-19 situation as an excuse to further isolate victims from friends and family, to incidents of violent abuse triggered by the amount of time spent alone at home with an abuser. Reports from China suggest that allegations of domestic violence tripled in February, when much of the country was on lockdown. Some practitioners predict a tsunami of calls and allegations once lockdowns are removed and when victims are able to get to a safe space to report incidents.
The final element of this theory is the lack of protection.
Police forces have had to deploy significant resources to enforce the restrictions to daily life imposed to limit the spread of the virus and if you use number of arrests as a proxy for routine police active then globally there appears to have had an impact. Figures from the United States suggest that arrests there have almost halved. Chicago, Dallas and New York reported reductions of 45%, 45% and 42% respectively against the same period last year. UK police forces have already said they may have to deprioritize less serious matters.
Added to this is the lack of broader surveillance and support mechanisms. This is particularly important in the context of family violence and specifically child abuse where broader governmental and societal entities have an important role in identifying and intervening in cases where abuse is suspected. Schools and hospitals are key as part of any child protection arrangements but difficult to play their role remotely and when, for hospital staff, the priority is responding to a public health emergency.
It is worth saying that whilst the pandemic will increase some opportunities for crime and motivation to commit some crimes, the changes to patterns of everyday life may shrink other crime opportunities. Some aspects of policing may become easier, given the very marked reduction in numbers of people using public space.
So, what does this mean for police services and other agencies involved in keeping us safe?
Educate the wider public about these threats and how they might take shape during the crisis. Incorporating this in public health messages might help these get attention
Ensure clear and accessible arrangements for reporting crime to include those that fall into these categories, and ensuring that these reporting centres – which will likely be virtual – include clear information on support services for those that need help dealing with the impact of any crime – practical, financial or emotional. Decisions on individual cases will be for the police to take depending on resourcing and priorities but even in those that cannot be provided an immediate response securing full and accurate information early on will support investigations in the future.
In the case of family violence, get guidance to all agencies that are interacting with the public – remotely or in person – with information on what to look out for and which might be an indication of. abuse with clear reporting arrangements for such cases. This should also include clarity in communicating that anyone alleging violence and seeking support should be supported in securing this even during times of curfew.
We will get through this crisis and most of us will come through it safe and well.
However, there will be some who have been impacted and in ways that we did not immediately consider. Being the victim of crime can be distressing and bring consequences that impact on economic and emotional wellbeing for some time after the event. We must be prepared for that and also look to learn the lessons of the crisis. Ensuring that we are ready to respond to allegations of abuse that occurred during the crisis and developing digital channels which allow people to engage with the police, not just access services are just two areas that might fall into that category.
The crisis makes the job of those keeping people and communities safer more difficult, but not impossible and if policing as a community is known for anything it is its ability to adapt.
Andrew was grateful to Mike Hough, Emeritus Professor at the School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London for his advice during the development of this blog.