How Did Lockdown Affect crime?

How has the pandemic and the societal reaction to the pandemic (changes in policing practices and lockdown) affected trends in crime?

Some recent research sheds some light on this and offers us a useful update for Crime statistics.

Langton et al (2021) investigated 13 categories of Police Recorded Crime during March to August 2020 to see how they differed from ‘expected’ crime rates based on historical data.

March 2020 was when the first wave of lockdowns began, with the restrictions being eased from July, so the period investigated is really exploring the impact of lockdown wave one on the crime rate!

The research found the following:

  • Antisocial behaviour and drug crimes were the two crimes which had increased during this period. By April, one month into lockdown, ASB crimes were 100% higher than in previous years, but then came back down to ‘normal’ levels as lockdown restrictions were eased in July.
  • Theft and robbery saw the most dramatic decreases during lockdown – they were 60% down in April, a dramatic immediate decrease, but then they ‘bounced back’ – heading back up to near expected levels by August!  This is most likely related to the restricted mobility during lockdown, and then being lifted.
  • Burglary, bicycle theft, criminal damage and arson all fell from 30-40% during lockdown and then gradually increased during summer but remained below usual levels. This is possibly due to the domestic nature of these crimes – more people were at home during lockdown, and even though restrictions had been lifted by August, many people had adapted to homeworking by that point. 
  • Public order offences saw the least change – down 20% in April, but then back up to usual levels.
  • The research also looked at ‘other crimes’ but this is a wide-ranging category so doesn’t really warrant investigation!

How Lockdown Affected Different Crimes

The research displayed its data like this: red is the actual crime rate, the dotted line the expected crime rate based on previous crime trends.

Why did Police Recorded Crime rates change?

The important thing to keep in mind here are that these are just Police Recorded Crime Rates, and policing practices changed during lockdown – new laws meant the police had the power to fine people for just being out for the ‘wrong reason’ or for having too many people at a gathering. So these changes are more about societal changes, NOT underlying changes to the crime rate! This is an important link to the Interactionist/ labelling theory of crime.

Anti Social Behaviour and Public Order offences may have increased/ stayed level because of this – as people ‘protest’ or just break lockdown rules – the police recorded many of these breaches as one of these two crimes.

Having said that, it seems reasonable to assume that some crimes did go down – the fact that people were at home more meant burglaries decreased for example, and bicycle theft as there were less people leaving their bikes around! One also imagines shoplifting declined dramatically!

Limitations of Police Recorded Crime Data

  • As mentioned above, the changes could be due to changes in policing and/ or changes in law during lockdown, not necessarily any underlying changes in the real crime rate.
  • Because of changes to policing and the law (new lockdown rules) it’s difficult to make a comparison of the underlying crime rate during lockdown and previous years.
  • The above analysis doesn’t specifically include two major categories of crime: sexual and domestic abuse, and computer related crimes – two (allegedly) crimes which both increased significantly during lockdown.

Signposting

This topic is part of the A-level Sociology Crime and Deviance module.

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