As Mayor John DeStefano Jr. stood before the podium at a press conference at New Haven Police Department headquarters last Friday, he emphasized two trends in the city’s quarterly crime report. As statistics breakdowns flashed in succession on a projector screen to his left, the message was clear.
“Violent crimes are down. Burglaries are up,” the mayor said on multiple occasions, stressing the quarterly report’s most prominent results to the reporters in the room.
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There were 408 burglaries between January and March of this year, compared to just 311 during that same period last year — a 31 percent increase.
Both commercial and residential areas across New Haven are being burglarized during one of the most pressing economic crises in recent years. Mortgage foreclosures in the last year, for example, are up 80 percent and are one more example of a failing economy. And, clearly, Elm City residents are feeling the pinch.
Since the economic upturn of the ’90s, and the dramatic decline in crime nationwide during that same period, criminologists have pondered the relationship between business cycles and delinquency. While some experts argue that attributing crimes to the state of the economy undermines the relevance of factors like police efficiency, others assert that economic factors not only correlate with the level of criminal activity, but even explain criminal behavior.
As one criminologist says, the economy can even predict the future of crime.
United states of economy and crime
DeStefano spoke cautiously, and qualified his response, when asked if the spike in New Haven burglaries could be attributed to the woes of an oncoming recession.
It is not homeowners stealing copper — which has recently been targeted in New Haven for its all-time high value — selling it to scrap metal dealers, and using the money to finance their mortgages, DeStefano said.
Instead, as NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz added later, many of the arrested burglars were desperate for money to feed their drug habits.
“I think [the burglaries are] a general reflection of the stresses people are feeling out there economically,” DeStefano said.
From Connecticut to California, cities around the country have reported crime hikes, and police departments have been pointing to the economy as a potential explanation.
The cities of Dalton and Rome in Georgia, for example, have seen a noticeable spike in property crimes so far this year — a trend one Rome Police Department spokesman attributed to “tough times economically,” Georgia Public Broadcasting reported. Both cities reported property crimes at higher rates than the national average, but did not have increases as dramatic as New Haven’s.
Despite an overall drop in crime last year in Sacramento, Calif., Sacramento Police Department Chief Richard Braziel told the Sacramento Bee last Friday that his department was researching crime trends during past recessions so that they could pre-empt patterned criminal activity.
But just north of New Haven on Interstate 91, the Hartford Police Department reported that as of Mar. 29, the number of murders, rapes and aggravated assaults — violent crimes — have increased by 50 percent, 31 percent and 3 percent, respectively, compared to the same period of time last year. But there were 234 burglaries in Hartford as of Mar. 29, the exact same amount the city had last year at this time.
Critics of the crime-economy relationship say proponents of the theory flaunt weak correlations of data and ignore other significant variables — such as prison trends and fluctuating drug markets — that contribute to criminal behavior. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in its Uniform Crime Reports — a collection of national policing statistics — defines crime as a “sociological phenomenon influenced by a variety of factors.”
“The relationship between the economy and crime has never been well understood or clear-cut,” Arthur Lurigio, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in Chicago, told TIME Magazine in January. “The changes in law enforcement policies and significant declines in homicides cannot be ignored or dismissed as coincidence or fluke.”
But in separate interviews on Tuesday, three criminologists and experts on the subject supported the theory.
When individuals are on the margin of poverty, and the economy is applying stress to their lifestyles, they become far more likely to engage in the underground economies of narcotics and thievery, said Alfred Blumstein, a criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Although some people occupying the economic fringes of society may switch back and forth between illegitimate and legitimate jobs, during rough economic periods, there is more incentive to forgo minimum wage and hustle narcotics instead because of the greater monetary pay-offs.
But that is not to say that the economy is the only factor influencing crime rates, he added. Reductions in the size of police forces, disruptions in social service programs as a result of decreased federal spending, the net flow of criminals being incarcerated or leaving prison and the growth of drug markets all add into the equation, Blumstein explained.
Steven Rafael — an economist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy — has studied the links between juvenile unemployment, delinquency and the economy.
“Property crimes are the one set of crimes that consistently are impacted by the economy,” he said.
Property crimes — which include burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft — are economically driven and often reflect a calculated weighing of benefits versus costs, Rafael said.
In a study he published in November of last year in the journal Criminology, University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Richard Rosenthal found that the Index of Consumer Sentiment, a measure of consumer confidence taken by Reuters and the University of Michigan, correlated strongly with levels of property crimes and robbery.
His data accurately reflected the decline in crime in the 1990s and even predicted, a year in advance, the levels of four types of crime — burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and robbery — in 2004 and two of those four crimes in 2005.
“It’s not that criminals are opening up the Wall Street Journal and thinking, ‘I better get busy!’ ” Rosenthal quipped, referring to the consumer confidence. “As the economy gets worse, folks begin resorting to underground markets to buy goods. As those underground markets expand, there’s incentive for thieves to fuel those underground markets.”
It’s the economy, stupid
Ryan Fennerty ’08, a Davenport College freshman counselor, was climbing the stairs to his second-floor suite in Welch Hall when he saw a young teenager he did not recognize coming out of his room. Fennerty asked the teen what his name was, to which he responded, “Clinton.” Fennerty asked the teen for his college ID. “I don’t have one,” the teen said.
He would later realize, after letting the teen go, that one of his suitemates was missing a laptop and an iPod. Fennerty called the Yale Police Department, who found the teen back at Welch — this time with a friend of his.
The YPD took the teen and his friend, who had both been arrested three times that same week, into custody, Fennerty said.
Certain socioeconomic brackets and groups of individuals feel the pressures of an economic downturn more acutely than others, experts said. Teenage youth, like Clinton, and minority groups often find themselves on the fringe between legitimate and illegitimate pursuits for income.
This is nothing new for New Haven, where crime has been heavily concentrated in black and Hispanic communities for years, according to annual crime statistics from 2007.
Of the 25 suspects identified in relation to homicides and non-fatal shootings in 2007, 23 were black males and two were Hispanic males. There were 13 homicides in New Haven last year; nine of the victims were black males, and three were Hispanic males. And of the 162 non-fatal shooting victims, 129 were black males and 24 were Hispanic males.
All 71 suspects arrested in relation to Elm City burglaries so far this year have been on probation or parole at some point in their lives. All have extensive substance abuse histories, as well.
Asked if they were surprised about the profiles of New Haven’s recently arrested burglars, the criminologists practically responded in union.
“No, not at all,” Rosenfeld said.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” chimed Rafael. “Those communities are poor, and they are less educated. Employment rates for young black men are at an all time-low. You’re the last to get hired, and you’re the first to get fired.”
It should come as no surprise that minority groups resort to street justice, Yale sociology professor Elijah Anderson told the News in January. Anderson, whose book “Code of the Street” details the social constructs of underground culture in Philadelphia, said when low-wage jobs and the welfare system are not enough, poor, inner-city residents are pushed instead into a third avenue: “begging, bartering, street crime, hustling and drugs.”
When society, especially the court system, deserts the alienated minority communities, they resort to their own framework for law and order, he added.
“Street justice fills the void,” Anderson said. “You do what you need to do to protect yourself, and often times this amounts to tension, violence and killings.”
Ortiz and DeStefano acknowledged last week that “stop snitching” codes on the streets had prevented the NHPD from making several arrests for shootings. Moreover, many witnesses of shootings refused to cooperate with police because they themselves had been involved in prior shootings.
According to Rosenfeld’s “crystal ball” of crime predictions, the future is bleak for the country, including New Haven. The Index of Consumer Sentiment showed that consumer confidence is at its lowest point in 16 years.
DeStefano may have to explain crime spikes to New Haven for months to come.