Friday, March 5, 2021

De-policing, COVID and crime - Rebuilding a great city

Denver skyline and Rocky Mountains
- photo Sheila Sund, Creative Commons

by Gregory Saville

Metro Denver is my home. As far as cities go, it’s a pretty decent place to live. On the western edge of the city lies the panoramic Rocky mountains and to the east, the Great Plains unfurl for almost a thousand miles. Metro Denver is one of the fastest-growing tech scenes in the country and it hosts the 2nd largest aerospace industry in the country. 

Yet all that means nothing if violence and crime compromise livability and street safety. So what is happening crime-wise? If we don’t know what is going on, how can we improve the quality of life?


The Denver Post newspaper recently used COVID and de-policing to explain crime fluctuations last year. On one hand, Denver had an explosion of homicides, from 63 in 2019 to 95 last year. On the other, certain crimes flatlined and dropped. The COVID pandemic, says the Post, did not seem to influence violent crime in the city. “Motor vehicle theft was flat before COVID, yet jumped by 37% in the 11 weeks before Floyd’s death. Larceny theft went the other direction: it was up 18% pre-COVID and then returned to 2016-19 levels.”

The Denver police Chief points to social stresses and COVID-related frustrations. "There’s a lot of negative emotion taking place out there…I think that there is some crossover into what we’re seeing in the homicide numbers. Typically, folks would resolve issues without resorting to violence."

Colorado State Capitol building in downtown Denver

Some researchers point away from social explanations and instead use the routine activity approach and crime opportunity theories (it’s easier to break into vacant stores shuttered by quarantine rules). They suggest the pandemic has impacted the routine activities of people and, therefore, crime patterns. The increase in murder, they suggest, is caused by more criminal guns on the street and fewer cops doing proactive stops to find them. Of course, if that were the case, violent crimes like robbery would be increasing. 

They aren’t. 

Since last August the Denver robbery rate has dropped.

Further, routine activity approach suggests domestic violence and sexual crimes should go up since COVID quarantines keep more people indoors. Because domestic violence incidents emanate from behind closed doors in residential areas, more opportunities should produce increases in those crimes. 

They don’t. 

In Denver, domestic violence and sexual assault have declined 16% and 39% respectively.

Routine activity is a case of wanting to have your theory-cake and eat it too. Perhaps we should rename it “the-theory-that-really-isn't-a-theory-of-some-selected-crimes-but-not-others-in-some-cities-but-not-other-cities”. 

Naw, that title doesn’t work. And that would not really be an explanatory theory but rather more of an after-the-fact travelogue of what I saw on my summer holiday. 

Post-modern downtown architecture


What about de-policing, when police retreat from proactive crime prevention due to the BLM protests and racial unrest. For some reason, newspapers equate traffic stops with “proactive crime prevention”. In any case, the Denver data shows traffic stops have little impact on overall crime. The graphic in the Denver Post article actually shows the opposite – as traffic stops decrease, so too does crime. The truth is that most crime reports emerge from after-the-fact crime reporting, not from traffic stops. 

The Denver Post article suggests there is a crisis of legitimacy between the public and the police and if people don’t trust the police, they won’t call them. If that is true, then crime rates should drop – which might explain Denver’s motor vehicle rates but not other increasing crime rates. And that brings us right back to cake-eating theory-making! Either de-policing increases crime, or it doesn’t. Or maybe it does for some crimes, in some circumstances, but not in others. Or maybe… oh, never mind.

Stick to the science. Theories need data and well-formulated hypotheses. The data suggest de-policing as a cause of crime blips does not work well. Neither does routine activity.

Higher density, transit-oriented design hub
development in Arvada, west of Denver


The Denver chief is probably right about social stresses from COVID cabin fever. Further, if you read this blog, you will know we've been saying for years that we must look elsewhere to explain crime blips. We need better prevention theory to rethink how we plan neighborhoods and create opportunities for healthy living that resists crime. We need more opportunities for pro-social behaviors and stronger neighborhood mediation and family support systems. We need local systems housed directly in the neighborhood where they are needed most, not centralized in city hall or police headquarters.

That falls squarely into community development and neighborhood planning more than criminology. It falls into the theory of SafeGrowth. Fortunately, some exciting new studies are recommending some new directions for researchers.

Urban green spaces between downtown towers

Martin Andresen and Tarah Hodgkinson’s latest study points the way for future academic theorizing. Their latest article, Environmental Criminology, Design and Victimization: What We Know, How We Have Failed, and Where We Need To Go, does a great job at throwing down the gauntlet for future researchers.

“If the focus of environmental criminology is to create specific and effective prevention strategies, these strategies need to be inclusive of all people. …For example, planning methodologies such as SafeGrowth integrate the learnings of environmental criminology with social and contextual concerns to create inclusive strategies with and by local residents that shift away from crime control for the few and toward inclusion, safety, and most importantly livability for the many."

Well done, Martin and Tarah, for pointing academic research towards a more productive future. We have much work to do.