How crime rates during COVID compare to the Spanish Flu

In addition to all the other turmoil of the year, 2020 also saw an increase in homicides, a number which has otherwise been steadily decreasing for years (although the change is not limited to "Democrat-run cities"). There are a lot of theories for why this may have been the case. Was it because of the desperation brought on by COVID-19? An immediate result of the "Defund Police" campaign despite the fact that it didn't immediately defund the police? The increase of gun sales across the nation? Overwhelmed hospitals that could have otherwise saved lives?

Sure, they're all possible (and we won't know the full story until all of the data is out anyway, which it's not, yet). Regardless of the answer: a weird fluke of a year does not indicate a trend in data. Because at the same time, according to Wired, drug crimes dropped by 65 percent, and property and violent crimes dropped by 19 percent. In other words: nothing about 2020 made sense, historically; and whether or not these new circumstances have set a precedent has yet to be seen.

But what Wired also pointed out is that the aforementioned drops in crime in 2020 reflected a similar statistical trend from 1918, when the nation was similarly sieged by a pandemic:

All those home fires notwithstanding, it seemed as though the experience of 1918 was pretty similar to what we've seen today: Fewer people in the streets, less misconduct as a rule. But there was a huge change from 1917 to 1918, besides the pandemic, that could have led to lower crime rates. Perhaps the mobilization of millions of men nationwide to fight in World War I—young men who would have been in their prime years for committing crimes—by itself accounted for the declining rates in Chicago. Without more or better data, there would be no way to know the difference.

For my 2020 research, I'd had to deal with something similar. While there's no obvious change between 2019 and 2020 on the scale of the Great War, it's always important to use a methodology that can account for the potential effect on crime of more pedestrian factors, such as economic upturns or downturns from one year to the next. To ensure that the crime changes I'd picked up really had to do with the pandemic and not something else, I completed a two-step process: First I compared 2020 crime rates with the average rates from the same weeks of the year for the previous five years, then I compared changes in the rates before and after the date stay-at-home orders were enacted in each city. This research design, called difference-in-difference, allowed me to isolate the changes that occurred as the pandemic started impacting each city.

Like 2020, 1918 had its own fluke crime quirks—like the fact that the typically-criminalized lower classes were being sent off to fight in World War I, which may have also impacted reporting. But it's interesting to see that—whatever eyebrow-rising statistical spikes may have arisen or dropped in the past year—data science suggests that it might not be that weird after all. Or at least, that it might align with other weird years. And that should be somewhat comforting.

Crime Rates Dropped in 2020—Just as They Did in 1918 [David S. Abrams / Wired]

What the data says (and doesn't say) about crime in the United States [John Gramlich / PEW Research]

It's Been 'Such a Weird Year.' That's Also Reflected in Crime Statistics. [Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz / The New York Times]

The rise in murders in the US, explained [German Lopez / Vox]

Image: Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)