Crime in Boston: A Look at the Trends Before and After COVID
Law and order has emerged as a top concern for American voters in the 2020 presidential election. 65% of respondents to a Monmouth University poll conducted in September identified it as a major problem. President Trump has also made law and order a focus of his reelection campaign. The president claimed in a July statement that nationwide police brutality protests “led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders, and heinous crimes of violence” and vowed to deploy federal agents to quell the unrest. In addition, the social and economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked fears that crime is rising in the U.S. Amidst all of this concern about safety in America, how does Boston compare to the rest of the country? To get a sense of where the city stands, let’s examine crime trends in Boston before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After peaking in the early 1990s, the composite crime rate in Boston—the number of crimes committed per 100,000 people—has decreased significantly. This trend mirrors an overall decrease in crime in the United States over the past 30 years, which scholars attribute to increased imprisonment and policing. Despite the city’s progress, certain crimes still occur more frequently in Boston than the country as a whole. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database tracks the number and type of criminal offenses known to police each year. One category of offenses is violent crime, which the FBI defines as “offenses that involve the threat of force.” This category includes murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Using FBI data, the following graph compares Boston’s violent crime rate from 2010-2019 to the U.S. average:
It’s not surprising that Boston sees more violent crime per 100,000 people than the country as a whole. Over the last few decades, cities usually have higher violent crime rates than suburban and rural areas. The imbalance can be attributed to greater access to the wealthy and a higher density of victims in urban areas, as well as a lower likelihood of arrest, according to a 1999 study by economists Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote. Individuals who commit crimes in cities are more likely to get away with it because of the large pool of potential suspects. This latter finding is especially relevant in Boston. In 2017, Boston magazine reporters investigated 618 shootings that took place in the city from 2014 to 2016. From that sample, the reporters found that Boston police arrested fewer than four percent of the gunmen responsible for non-fatal shootings. They also found that “police made arrests in barely 15 percent of fatal shootings.” In other words, the vast majority of gun violence perpetrators were never caught. Twenty years after the publication of the Glaeser and Sacerdote’s study, there is evidence that violent criminals in Boston are getting away with their crimes.
However, over the past decade, Boston has steadily narrowed the gap between its violent crime rate and that of the country as a whole. Along with the violent crime rate, the property crime rate in Boston has also decreased. The FBI defines property crimes as offenses motivated by “the taking of money or property,” including burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Nationally, property crimes occur much more frequently than violent crimes. Since 2010, the Boston property crime rate has decreased faster than the average U.S. property crime rate, and in 2015, the Boston rate officially became lower. That year, while there were 2,500 known property crime offenses per 100,000 residents in the U.S. as a whole, there were only 2,316 in Boston. The Boston rate remained below the U.S. rate for the most recent year on record, 2018.
All of the numbers presented above boil down to a few major takeaways. First, Boston crime rates have decreased since 2010. And when compared to national averages, the city sees more violent crimes per 100,000 people, but less property crimes.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced nationwide lockdowns in March, it didn’t take long for researchers to pick up on new crime trends. The Police Executive Research Forum analyzed the crime rates of American cities from March to April of 2020 and compared their findings to the same period in 2019. Amongst the 30 cities sampled, 25 saw a drop in property crimes compared to last year; 22 saw less robberies; and 17 saw less burglaries. The Washington-based think tank noted that the decrease in property crimes was most likely a result of people going out less due to pandemic restrictions. Boston was one of the cities reporting a decrease in burglaries and theft, and Boston.com reported in April that Part 1 crimes—rape, burglary, and larceny-theft—were down 15 percent compared to March of last year.
Lockdowns did not lead to a nationwide decrease in all crimes, however. During the pandemic, murders have spiked in some U.S. cities. Using available FBI data, the New York Times reported in July that “murder is up 21.8 percent in all 36 cities with 2020 data through at least May, with 29 of those cities seeing an increase this year relative to last year.” Also in July, the Boston Globe revealed that there have been 32 homicides in Boston this year compared to 23 at the same time last year. Murders usually increase in the summer, but this year’s rise has been especially widespread. Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell told the Globe that people may be resorting to violence in response to the collective trauma of the pandemic, high unemployment rates, and police-involved murders.
With more people stuck at home, domestic violence also rose in Boston during the early months of the pandemic. Boston Police filed 203 simple assault and battery domestic violence reports in March of 2020 compared to 166 in March of 2019. Additionally, Brigham and Women’s Hospital saw two times as many cases of high-risk domestic violence from March to May of this year compared to last year.
These trends are worrying, but it’s still too early to draw firm conclusions about their causes. As Jennifer Dolceac, director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M, told the New York Times, “This is such a weird year in so many dimensions, and it’s going to take us a while to figure out what caused any of these differences in crime. It is perfectly reasonable to think the first half of this year may not tell us what the rest of the year will look like.”
Law and order has become a focal point of the upcoming presidential election. President Trump has tweeted repeatedly about high crime rates, and even deployed federal agents across the country to corral unrest. But despite the possibly pandemic-related increase in murders discussed above, overall crime is down in American cities. FiveThirtyEight published an article in early August making the case that Americans are overestimating threats to their safety: “we are certain crime is rising when it isn’t; convinced our risk of victimization is higher than it actually is.” The numbers show that Boston, amongst many other cities, is safer than it was a decade ago. Numbers aside, how voters perceive their communities’ safety will likely influence the outcome of the election.