Are Low Crime Rates Recession-Proof?

10/25/2011 08:58 pm ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

Conventional wisdom is that crime rates typically rise with the unemployment rate. The theory is that people without jobs have the motivation and the time to commit crime. This economic downturn, which started nearly four years ago, is something of an anomaly in this respect. Not only has the crime rate not significantly increased with the unemployment rate, but violent crime and property crime rates have decreased over the last several years. In fact, the violent crime rate fell in the United States by 12% in 2010 (the most recent statistics available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics).

It's an unusual phenomenon, but it's not totally unexpected given the technological breakthroughs in fighting crime in recent decades. Some of the most significant advancements have been achieved by capturing criminal data, which may have been collected and neglected by various agencies, and integrating all relevant data into centralized systems where it can be analyzed, accessed and used to gain a better understanding of crime patterns. The net result: Lower crime rates.

It would be difficult to measure the impact technology has had on law enforcement. It's touched everything from administrative operations to forensic science. In many cities, record management systems, as well as booking systems have been centralized and digitized. Even fingerprints are identified with high-tech, sophisticated computing systems.

Although technology's effects have been dramatic, there are still gaping inefficiencies in law enforcement that information technology can help eliminate. It's somewhat counter intuitive: Most cities facing crime waves tend to throw more bodies at the problem. The logic is that the more officers there are on the street, the fewer crimes are committed. But hiring more officers does not always result in lower crime rates, and given the fact that many law enforcement units are facing budget deficits, growing a police force is a prohibitively expensive solution. Ideally, the same technologies used in recent years to cut crime should also be used to help police departments become more efficient and productive.

Operational inefficiencies can cost a police force millions of dollars annually. A 2004 study, for example, found that inefficiencies in the Philadelphia Police Department cost taxpayers an estimated $35 million. (The study looked at a number of factors including the number of officers in the force and the amount of overtime paid.) In many cases, police departments may have sufficient money and manpower, their resources just need to be allocated more efficiently.

Using basic analytic tools, police can analyze criminal data for various factors - such as weather, special events, time of day, etc. - to help understand where crime is committed, what times it is committed, and to plan their patrols accordingly. The more specific the data collected -- knowing, for example, that there is a consistent spike in crime on Thursday afternoons in one neighborhood -- the better law enforcement officers are able to actually predict and prevent crime, and the less money police departments will need to spend on overtime or hiring more officers.

Technology also has the potential to improve other parts of law enforcement operations. Multiple studies have shown that emergency response times in many major cities are inadequate or are somewhat slower than they should be. There are any number of reasons why police may be delayed in arriving at a crime or accident scene, including traffic, communications problems or a staff shortage. If the problem lies with the call center -- in many cities wait times have grown notoriously long -- the dispatch system may be outdated, understaffed, and isolated from all the local emergency responders.

By integrating data streams from other emergency services, a computer-aided call center could immediately identify on a map where officers are in relation to a caller; the fastest routes to get to a caller and which emergency services might be best equipped to respond to a call. The system could also automatically retrieve and send information -- including a suspect's previous mug shot -- to an attending officer immediately.

Clearly there is no easy way to eliminate crime -- especially since urban populations are growing at a fantastic rate. Information technology will never replace police officers, but it is an invaluable tool that can help law enforcement agencies optimize their increasingly limited resources, while lowering crime rates and reducing expenses.

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