'Paranoid about the pandemic': How COVID-19 brought the 'largest criminology experiment in history'

Isolation orders, border closures, social distancing and mandated lockdowns will test theories like never before of why crime really happens and how it can be reduced

Author of the article:

Adrian Humphreys

Publishing date:

Aug 08, 2020  • 


If there were one specific crime to define the current phase of the pandemic, it could be the allegations against Adam Zaborowski.

After the 35-year-old man walked into a cigar store in Bethlehem Township, Pa., he flew into a rage when staff asked him to put on a mask. Instead, he grabbed two cigars and left without paying. A clerk followed him outside, where Zaborowski shot at him. When police tracked Zaborowski down, he grabbed an assault rifle, police said. After a shootout with seven officers, Zaborowski was airlifted to hospital and charged.

His lawyer, John Waldron, explained that Zaborowski was “just not handling the pandemic well.”

Another crazy thing in a crazy, crazy time.

Is it only that? Or, are there real, tangible links between crime and COVID-19?

Canada has seen its own iterations of apparent pandemic paranoia or stress linked to spectacular crimes.

In an almost identical incident, police in Haliburton, cottage country northeast of Toronto, shot a man dead during a standoff in July after he assaulted store staff in an argument over his refusal to wear a mask.

That same month, Corey Hurren was arrested with loaded guns after a pickup crashed through the gates of Rideau Hall, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lives. Hurren left a note saying COVID was ruining him financially and restrictions were turning Canada into a communist dictatorship, Global News reported.

Even Canada’s worst mass killing has COVID as a possible trigger. In April, Gabriel Wortman was “paranoid about the pandemic,” a friend said, and liquidated his investments and stockpiled food and fuel shortly before he dressed as a cop and killed 22 people in Nova Scotia.

It is not easy to quickly reverse engineer the causes of each specific crime. Looking for logic or answers is often frustrating.


There are ideas, however, on what drives crime more broadly, with crime and justice researchers regularly plumbing reams of data on who is doing what to whom, where, when and how.

And these researchers are really excited about the pandemic.

Emergency isolation orders, border closures, social distancing and mandated lockdowns are inconvenient and costly, but, it is hoped, it will at least test theories like never before of why crime really happens and how it can be predicted and reduced.

The COVID-19 pandemic is “the largest criminological experiment in history,” according to influential American criminologist Marcus Felson. “It’s like a natural lab,” Felson says in an interview — and we are all test subjects locked in this dystopian exploration.

“The ‘stay-at-home’ mandates brought about the most wide-reaching, significant, and sudden alteration of the lives of billions of people in human history,” Felson, a professor at Texas State University, wrote in a recent paper rallying criminologists around the world to aggressively seize opportunity from tragedy.

The pandemic certainly has some collateral damage to folks’ levels of stress and strain

“Practically overnight, the entire country ceased or significantly reduced day-to-day travels, eliminating commutes from home to work, as well as leisure activities, shopping trips, social gatherings, the ability to dine out, and more.

“Across the United States and around the world, a positive byproduct of these unprecedented events is a dramatic drop in crime rates,” writes Felson, co-authoring with Ben Stickle, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

That drop in crime, though, has not been uniform across types of offenses. Some crimes rose while others fell. A dissection of the interplay of this rise and fall — at a time when human routines and activities are largely frozen — may be the key, he says.

Felson has a particular interest in these results.

More than 40 years ago, he created the “routine activity theory” of crime, an approach to criminology that moves away from focusing on offenders to learn why crime happens, and to look instead at the circumstances in which crimes occur.

His premise is crime happens when three things converge: a capable offender, a suitable target and the absence of an appropriate guardian. In other words, a specific deterrent.

Now, suddenly, Felson sees a chance to test this theory with robust global data in ways unthinkable before COVID-19 because, along with illness and death, the novel coronavirus gave us lockdowns.

As dramatic a change as immobilizing people in their homes, little actually changed in terms of the broad factors often associated with crime: poverty, inequality, unemployment, biological and physiological conditions.

“The basic population didn’t change,” Felson says. “The racial composition of communities remained the same. Poverty and inequality did not disappear or increase overnight. There is not much change in the basic social structure.”

What did change — suddenly and significantly — are the routine activities of huge swaths of people, almost globally, and crime rates dropped by double digits almost immediately. The routine activity theory suggests it’s because lockdowns prevent capable offenders from meeting worthwhile targets or shifts guardianship, such as from offices and businesses to homes.

“So this is a natural test of the routine activity approach.”

One problem criminologists face, Felson says, is crime offers too many variables to get a firm grip on cause and effect. That’s why he wants criminologists to seize this moment, a unique time when variables are conspicuously reduced. The crisis offers a naturally occurring quasi-random control trial.

Researchers around the world are now applying Felson’s theory to analyze how COVID restrictions are changing crime patterns in different communities, cities and regions.

Vancouver, for instance, was the focus of criminologists in Australia who studied the city’s crime data during the first 12 weeks of lockdown. The researchers found a significant decrease in total crime, but not across all types: there was an increase in commercial burglary, for example. This supports routine activity theory, because closed businesses lack active guardians, namely store staff and customers, who would normally act as deterrence.


This naturally occurring experiment will advance our knowledge of crime and human behaviour as no other event has ever done

In Great Britain, a study found a huge drop in total reported crime in Lancashire County, led by shoplifting; when most stores are closed, shoplifters don’t have access to an attractive target to steal.

COVID is also disastrous for pickpockets, a crime that thrives on a crowd of bustling and hurried people, according to a study of crime in Stockholm.

Police in several cities told National Post that officers are seeing similar changes in crime patterns, including in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Calgary.

From March through June, York Regional Police, north of Toronto, saw a noticeable drop in overall crime.

“We saw a drop in motor vehicle collisions and impaired driving offences as people were staying home. Other trends we saw were increases in stunt driving offences, as well as a rise in domestic incidents,” said Sgt. Andy Pattenden. “We attribute the rise in family domestic incidents to more people being at home with one another for long periods of time as they were isolating.”

In Toronto, gun murders seem unaffected by COVID, while most other crimes are down, said Toronto police spokeswoman Connie Osborne.

“Break and enters in particular have declined and, while I couldn’t directly attribute it specifically to COVID, I think it could be argued with more people at home there are less likely to be break-ins,” she said.

That’s like catnip for proponents of routine activity theory; people at home are the quintessential guardians to deter crimes against a homeowner’s property.

What is more difficult to place in any framework are the explosive crimes that make the biggest headlines, the crazy police shootouts, the distressing mass murder, the possible assassination attempt.

Into the fifth month of widespread COVID-19 restrictions, the nature of this exceptional event is changing: Economic loss and financial hardship are increasing; lockdowns ease but there is still no vaccine or treatment; there are disputes over wearing masks.

Anecdotal and news accounts suggest other violent incidents may have links to the stress, loneliness, and psychosocial changes from the pandemic. Perhaps under lockdown, some people are losing access to their usual coping mechanisms: bars, friends, church, therapy, shopping.

Adam Vaughan, a Canadian health criminologist teaching at Texas State University, said stress could lead to crime.

“The pandemic certainly has some collateral damage to folks’ levels of stress and strain. For some, this may manifest into violent behaviour. For most, this is not likely to show up in severe acts of violence,” Vaughan says.

These high-profile incidents are lightning rods for media and the public, but not so much for criminologists. Felson calls these “particular, bizarre incidents” that fall outside normal patterns.

“Most crime is quite ordinary, and these extraordinary crimes get so much attention you forget how ordinary most crime is,” Felson says.

Even so, if these bizarre incidents are linked to uncertainty or stress from COVID, it does not diminish the persuasiveness of his theory, Felson says.

If anything, an increase in job insecurity and stress would predict an increase in crime, not account for a decrease, as is being experienced.

“It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on crime largely rest on routine activity theory,” he says.

It all bolsters the hope his theory can help predict what crimes will go up and where that will happen, both during a pandemic and afterwards. He hopes careful research examines how crime changes when lockdowns end.

Crime research also tells us this: after an exceptional event ends, human behaviour returns to normal, meaning potential victims, potential offenders and the situations where they meet also return to normal.

And with that convergence re-engaged, crime trends return to pre-event levels.

That’s already happening in Canada.

“In the past week we have had three homicides in York Region where the victims were shot. We have been seeing an increase in impaired driving incidents again as people return to socializing and consuming alcohol or drugs in places other than their homes,” said Pattenden.

“Since July, as the province re-opens and things start to get back to the new normal, we are seeing crime on the rise back to historical levels.”

Felson and other criminologists, will be watching.

“In the end,” Felson says, “this naturally occurring experiment will advance our knowledge of crime and human behaviour as no other event has ever done during the era in which criminological data were widely available.”

It gives hope we may know a lot more when we get to the other side of the pandemic.

• Email: ahumphreys@nationalpost.com | Twitter: AD_Humphreys

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