An Unpopular Opinion about Corona and Crime
Over the past few weeks, the Internet has been rife with speculation, conjecture, delusions, pseudo-science, fake remedies and so on. I have made a conscious decision not to contribute to any of that, nor to get sucked in as a bystander (as much as is humanly possible). That said, as someone who values the scientific method, it's been difficult for me not to go on an Internet rampage, especially when I see the level of speculation going on with respect to crime and how police services could or should deal with uncertainty in a crisis that is unprecedented in recent history.
Will Covid increase certain types of crime? Possibly.
Will Covid reduce certain types of crime? Possibly.
Should police be tasked with enforcing municipal bylaws and state/provincial regulations around social distancing? Possibly.
Perhaps the more accurate response is: how the hell would I know?
To my knowledge we have no comparable data from 1918, 1968 or 2009, therefore anything I say is speculation based on a reading of literature in relation to other types of crisis or times of uncertainty. For example, there's been some studies done in Canada and elsewhere that show that domestic violence increases during economic downturns. Clearly, Covid is producing economic anxieties, particularly given many people are not working, we do not know how long it will last for, or whether the virus will hit populations in successive waves (as happened in 1918). While it might appear reasonable - in fact, highly prudent - to be prepared for this possibility, we really don't know to what extent, if any, we will see increased rates of domestic violence, particularly as social distancing and business closures are reducing access to alcohol and/or opportunities for social consumption. You see, it's not that simple: there are too many unknowns, even in a scenario that otherwise seems straightforward.
What I'm urging is caution: as responsible social scientists, we need to avoid the trap of trying to rush in with crystal balls to fill knowledge and policy gaps. Yes, I get that police services are asking for guidelines and turning to the 'experts' for advice. However, the reality is that when it comes to understanding the impacts of pandemics on crime, there are, to my knowledge, no real experts. By rushing in to 'save the day' with our advice based largely on supposition, or by hurriedly creating research to fill policy and other voids, we actually threaten to undermine our credibility as experts in other domains and to contribute to the atmosphere of anti-expertise and anti-intellectualism that has helped to create and sustain our current situation. Taking this cautious route requires two things: patience and a modicum of humility that is too often absent in academia.