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Many people assume that hard times could lead to an increase in crime. But it turns out that's a myth as old as Bonnie and Clyde. Here's NPR's Laura Sullivan.

LAURA SULLIVAN: It was the depths of the Great Depression. A young couple with no jobs, no prospects. They crossed the country robbing banks, killing police officers to make ends meet. For a while, they were almost American heroes.

(Soundbite of movie "Bonnie and Clyde")

Mr. WARREN BEATTY: (As Clyde Barrow) This here's Miss Bonnie Parker. I'm Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.

SULLIVAN: There's only one problem.

Professor DAVID KENNEDY (Director, Center for Crime Prevention, John Jay College of Criminal Justice): The Depression was a low-crime period.

SULLIVAN: David Kennedy directs the Center for Crime Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Stories like that of Bonnie and Clyde have always fueled the idea that the worse the economy gets, the more likely people are to turn to crime. But Kennedy says a century of crime statistics show otherwise. Take the 1920s.

Professor KENNEDY: A period of booming economic prosperity, the roaring '20s, and very high crime.

SULLIVAN: Or the 1950s and '60s, great economy and crime rates that increased every single year. Experts say some people will 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 too. When the economy goes bad, many people move in with parents or relatives, and they stay home more, which appears to have a calming effect. But Kennedy says it's not all good news.

Professor KENNEDY: Is somebody who's never pulled a strong-armed stickup in their life likely to go start doing that because they've lost their job? Not so much. Is a household that has 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.

SULLIVAN: And that's what police chiefs across the country say they're already seeing.

Chief BILL LANSDOWNE (San Diego Police Department): Domestic violence, alcohol-related crime, white-collar crime is starting to increase.

SULLIVAN: Chief Bill Lansdowne has run the San Diego police department for five years. His city has the lowest murder rate it's had in a decade, and it's holding steady. But these other crimes are starting to trouble him.

Chief LANSDOWNE: Identity theft, mortgage fraud, senior abuse, too, where people are taking advantages of seniors, trying to get to their money.

SULLIVAN: These crimes will eventually show up in the overall crime rate. But experts say never in huge numbers. Of course, there are some exceptions. Just a few years after the stock market crashed in 1987, murders 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.

Sheriff TED KAMATCHUS (Marshall County, Iowa): You know, I have a small budget. I have a $4 million budget here.

SULLIVAN: Ted Kamatchus is the sheriff of rural Marshall County, Iowa. The county is facing big shortfalls from mortgage foreclosures and unemployment.

Sheriff KAMATCHUS: We pay wages. We negotiate contracts. We pay for benefits, health benefits and such for our staffs. We pay overtime. And we pay for fuel and utilities at our facilities. It becomes a burden.

SULLIVAN: Marshall County has had three times as many calls lately of what are 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.

Sheriff KAMATCHUS: When a friend of mine who was a sheriff in Minnesota responded to go serve some papers on an individual, and he took the life of that sheriff because he just didn't want that to happen to him.

SULLIVAN: Kamatchus says without the money to fight the crime there is, police could see the increase in crime they all fear. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: To see the numbers on changing crime rates, visit npr.org.

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