Killings down, gangsters stay away: Coronavirus gives crime a beating

Topics Coronavirus | United States | Peru

Across Latin America, crime is down to levels unseen in decades. | Photo: Reuters
The coronavirus pandemic that has crippled big-box retailers and mom and pop shops worldwide may be making a dent in illicit business too.

In Chicago, one of America's most violent cities, drug arrests have plummeted 42 per cent in the weeks since the city shut down, compared with the same period last year.

Part of that decrease, some criminal lawyers say, is that drug dealers have no choice but to wait out the economic slump..

The feedback I'm getting is that they aren't able to move, to sell anything anywhere, said Joseph Lopez, a criminal lawyer in Chicago who represents reputed drug dealers.

Overall, Chicago's crime declined 10 per cent after the pandemic struck, a trend playing out globally as cities report stunning crime drops in the weeks since measures were put into place to slow the spread of the virus.

Even among regions that have the highest levels of violence outside a war zone, fewer people are being killed and fewer robberies are taking place.

Still, law enforcement officials worry about a surge of unreported domestic violence, and what happens when restrictions lift or go on too long.

It's rare for a city to see a double-digit drop in crime, even over a much longer period.

During New York City's 1990s crime decline, one of the biggest turnarounds in American history, crime dropped about 40 per cent over three years.

That makes the drop-offs occurring now in a period of just a couple of weeks even more seismic.

Across Latin America, crime is down to levels unseen in decades.

Killings are down, and the gangsters aren't harassing so much,'' Eduardo Perdomo, a 47-year-old construction worker, said while getting off a bus in San Salvador.

I think they're afraid of catching the virus, and they aren't going out.'' El Salvador reported an average of two killings a day last month, down from a peak of 600 a day a few years ago.

Much of the decrease has taken place because of tougher security policies and gang truces. But the imposition of near-total limits on movement is likely driving it down further, according to analysts and national statistics.

In Peru, where crime levels fell 84 per cent last month, Lima mortician Ral Gonzlez usually has as many as 15 bodies a day many are homicide victims. This week he napped on a bench after six hours without a client.

There are almost no killings or car accidents these days,'' Gonzlez said.

In South Africa, police reported a stunning decline during their first week of lockdown measures. Police Minister Bheki Cele said reported rapes were down from 700 to 101 over the same period last year. Serious assault cases plummeted from 2,673 to 456, and murders fell from 326 to 94.

The US virus epicenter in New York saw major crimes murder, rape, robbery, burglary, assault, grand larceny and car theft decrease by 12 per cent from February to March.

In Los Angeles, 2020 key crimes statistics were consistent with last year's figures until the week of March 15, when they dropped by 30 per cent.

There's a lot fewer opportunities for criminals to take advantage of, said Joe Giacalone, a former New York Police Department sergeant who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Most burglars, they wait for you to leave the house. Policing has also changed in the face of the pandemic.

Officers are increasingly getting sick; the NYPD, the country's largest department with more than 36,000 officers, has more than 7,000 officers out and more than 2,000 diagnosed with COVID-19.

And US authorities say they're issuing citations instead of making low-level arrests, policing social distancing and putting detectives into patrol cars which could, in turn, bring down crime rates.

While departments are unlikely to announce they've backed off policing certain crimes, that's going to be the case, said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson.

In many respects, over the next weeks, they're really in survival mode, he said.

But while narcotics arrests are down, drug sales continue, with dealers likely forced to change their strategies, said Rodney Phillips, a former gang member in Chicago who now works as a conflict mediator in the city.


Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel