Experts: Bad Economies Don't Cause Crime Waves

Bonnie Parker smokes a cigar while toting a pistol in this 1930s photo. i i

Bonnie Parker smokes a cigar while toting a pistol in this 1930s photo. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bonnie Parker smokes a cigar while toting a pistol in this 1930s photo.

Bonnie Parker smokes a cigar while toting a pistol in this 1930s photo.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
U.S. Crime Trends

Levels of serious violent crimes such as homicide and robbery have declined since 1993, as has the rate of property crimes, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Here, a look at key crime trends in the United States.

American outlaw Clyde Barrow. i i

Clyde Barrow crouches in front of a car adorned with handguns in the front grill and three guns laid against the front fender in 1933, possibly in Joplin, Mo. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American outlaw Clyde Barrow.

Clyde Barrow crouches in front of a car adorned with handguns in the front grill and three guns laid against the front fender in 1933, possibly in Joplin, Mo.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are few outlaws in the United States as famous as Bonnie and Clyde — a young couple, with no jobs or prospects, driving across the country robbing banks and killing police officers to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

It's an indelible image of what people will do during desperate times. For a while, Bonnie and Clyde were almost American heroes.

There's only one problem: The Depression years had very little crime.

With the economy's current troubles, many people assume a crime wave is just around the corner. But criminologists say that's just an American myth.

Just look at the 1920s, says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Studies.

"It was a period of booming economic prosperity, the roaring '20s, and very high crime," he says.

The 1950s and '60s were the same. The economy was great, but crime rates rose every single year.

Experts say there will always be some people who take to robbing liquor stores in tough times. But those people were already likely to rob stores even in good times, making it a statistical wash. And there's something else: When the economy goes bad, many people move in with parents or relatives, and they stay home more — both of which appear to have a calming effect, experts say

But Kennedy warns it's not all good news.

"Is somebody who's never pulled a strong-armed stickup in their life likely to go start doing that because they lost their job?" he says. "Not so much. Is a household that's already been troubled and has a history of domestic violence going to be even further strained, and is it likely to escalate? Much more likely."

That's what police chiefs across the country say they are already seeing.

San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne ticks off the problems in his city.

"Domestic violence, alcohol-related crime, white-collar crime is starting to increase," he says. "Identity theft, mortgage fraud, senior abuse, too — people taking advantage of seniors, trying to get to their money."

San Diego's murder rate is the lowest it's been in a decade — and it's holding steady. But Lansdowne says these other crimes are starting to trouble him.

Criminologists say these economic crimes eventually will show up in the overall crime rate. But experts say never in huge numbers, and rarely do they appear in large increases to violent crime.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Just a few years after the stock market crashed in 1987, murder rates hit historic highs in cities across the country. But criminologists now believe that peak was the result of the introduction of crack cocaine into cities — and the gang warfare that followed.

But there is one way the economy is already affecting police departments: their budgets.

"We pay wages, we negotiate contracts, we pay for health benefits for staff," says Ted Kamatchus, sheriff of rural Marshall County, Iowa, which is facing huge shortfalls from mortgage foreclosures and unemployment. "We pay overtime, and we pay for fuel and utilities at our facilities, and it becomes a burden."

This all comes out of what Kamatchus says is a small budget of $4 million.

Marshall County lately has had three times as many "mental health calls," basically reports of people acting crazy. Kamatchus says that's to be expected in tough times, and it's already eating into his resources. But 30 years ago, when the economy plummeted in the 1970s, he found out how dangerous it is to understaff those calls.

"When a friend of mine who was a sheriff in Minnesota responded to go serve some papers on an individual," Kamatchus recalls, "[The man] took the life of that sheriff because he just didn't want that to happen to him."

He says that without the money to fight the crime there is, police could see the crime increase they all fear.

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