The coronavirus pandemic has made humankind worry largely about a single issue – the Covid-19 disease – which, according to an Ipsos global survey, 61% of people were concerned about in April. Compared to the pre-pandemic period, we are now less concerned with poverty and social inequality, corruption, education quality, and the environment. However, the area of concern that has dropped the most is crime and violence (-11%).
Reduced concerns about rising crime seems completely natural in this time of quarantine measures as social life has significantly slowed down. However, how will the situation develop in the coming months and years when the pandemic crisis may either be replaced or accompanied by an economic crisis? And how should law enforcement respond to upcoming trends?
GDP in the European Union fell by 3.5% in the first quarter, which is only the beginning of the expected economic shock. The European Commission’s spring economic forecast projects a year-on-year shrinking of the EU economy by almost 8%, but, given the unpredictability of the pandemic’s development, the reality may be even more devastating. At the same time, we are seeing depressing data about skyrocketing unemployment. In the United States, it shot up to a record-breaking 15% in April.
Concerns among most of the adult population in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States about economic instability are justified. In some countries, budget deficits will reach double-digit levels this year, and governments around the world will not avoid significant budget cuts.
Austerity measures will also affect law enforcement, and budget cuts may not necessarily be short-lived. Police departments in the United States experienced budget cutbacks and hiring freezes for at least four years after the economic downturn in 2008. In some countries, police funding dropped for the whole past decade. For example, according to the BBC, police forces’ budgets overall in the United Kingdom fell by 20% in real terms between 2010 and 2017. With this decrease in funding, the number of police officers was also reduced.
Searching for savings in a time of economic downturn is natural, but what impact do such measures have on crime? When the number of police officers on London streets was increased by 30% after the terrorist attacks in 2005, crime rates fell by 10%.
A strong correlation between the increase in the number of police and the decrease in crime rates was also confirmed by an analysis by Steven Lewitt, the author of Freakonomics, who examined the reasons for a surprisingly sharp decline in crime in the United States in the 1990s.
Data from the United Kingdom’s Street Crime Initiative also shows that allocating extra funding to selected police forces to combat robbery reduced such crime by 20%.
When considering future police strategies and the impact on the development of crime rates, it is important to take into account the impact of budget cuts as well as the deterioration of the economy. Not only do recessions lead to an increase in suicides and negative labour market prospects; according to the World Economic Forum, they also produce more criminals, especially among young people, for whom it is difficult to find a job during a recession.
Statistics also show the correlation between economic crises and car theft. Following the Wall Street stock market crash of 1987, the number of stolen vehicles in the United States increased by 5%, according to Uniform Crime Reports. The increase in thefts also occurred during other crises, such as the dot-com bubble burst of 2001 and the financial crisis seven years later. For example, the number of stolen insured vehicles in Mexico rose by around 50% between the outbreak of the 2008 crisis and the end of 2011 before starting to slowly decline.
If law enforcement agencies do not avoid budget cuts and possible staff reductions in the coming years and history is repeated, such as when a one-percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate is associated with a one-percent increase in property crime, it is clear that police forces in most countries will have to reconsider their existing ways of operating and providing services.
Experience and data show that the way the police operates is as important as the number of staff. Modern working practices that bring less bureaucracy as well as faster and better data availability have a significant effect on police productivity.
The police of the future must be more effective in all its activities – from crime prevention and the ability to respond to hotline alerts through to the collection of information necessary for intervention and criminal investigations and the necessary administrative work.
Technology plays a key role in all these core activities, be it CCTV street cameras used for both crime prevention and as evidence in courts, technologies integrated into police vehicles helping to investigate vehicle theft and detect other crime, or mobile police officer equipment for field work.
Look into the future of policing and see how smart technologies can improve public safety, even in a time of economic crisis.