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When the economy goes down, crime goes up - or does it?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2009 - St. Louis' crime numbers are down in the first five months of 2009 compared to the same months in 2008, despite the economic downturn. Major declines in burglary, larceny and auto theft contributed to the decrease. There were also three fewer rapes and 15 fewer murders in the first five months of 2009.

However, this year saw 187 more cases of aggravated assault, including a hike in domestic assault. As of the second week in July, the Domestic Abuse Response Team opened 611 domestic assault cases this year, compared to 392 cases for the same period in 2008. This year, the team has made 429 arrests, compared to 310 for the same period last year. 

These numbers do not include cases handled by district officers, who dealt with 634 cases in all of 2008. The St. Louis Police Department did not have numbers for district officers in 2009. 

"We cannot explain any particular reason(s) for the significant increase in unit numbers," said Erica Van Ross, St. Louis Police Department's public information officer, in an e-mail. "Recent public cases of domestic violence with personalities and stars may cause some victims to feel more comfortable coming forward to report crimes. Families struggling with economic set-backs and changes in area population demographics may also contribute to increased crimes."

The increase in domestic violence statistics doesn't surprise those who work with victims of abuse. More people have sought refuge at ALIVE, an organization for domestic violence victims in St. Louis, for example. ALIVE's executive director, Erin Ercoline, said the first quarter of 2009 saw about 40 percent more bed nights than the first quarter of 2008. what are the actual numbers?

"We can attest to the fact that the numbers are up, especially in the last three months," she said. And, Ercoline adds, domestic violence may even be more of a problem than the police numbers show. "What ... needs to be said is just because they're calling us doesn't mean they're calling the police."

The upsurge began at the end of 2007, but ALIVE, which has also felt the economic pressures, has not had to hire staff, thanks to volunteers. Ercoline said grant money and donations support the organization's efforts. 

"I think people are just stressed out," Ercoline said. "What little financial stability they have -- when that goes, it kicks (stress) into overdrive."

At the Women's Safe House, activity at the shelter and hotline is up 20 percent since January of this year. 

"Demand is going up and support for services is going down," said Carla Falacso, senior manager of volunteerism and communications.

Although a decline in funding has forced the safe house to decrease its staff, it's not hiring. Again, volunteers give their time to keep the shelter operating. Falasco has seen volunteers work at the safe house to build their resumes while looking for a paying job.

Other than for domestic assault, Van Ross said the department doesn't see any link between the economy and crime -- or any reason for the department to change its procedures.

"There's nothing we've done differently because of an economic downturn," she said. "We don't generally find any huge changes. We tend to find that crime is crime."

The same goes for the St. Louis County Police Department.

"We have not seen an increase in crime," said Rick Eckhard, a media relations officer for the St. Louis County Police Department. "I'm not about to say that has anything to do with the economy. Most people would think that crime would go up, but that has not been the case. You're going to see spikes once in a while because you can only go so low."

St. Louis County's most recent crime numbers are from 2007, so they do not offer any comparison with the city.

Eckhard said from January through April, the county has seen at least an 18 percent decrease in crime each month. He attributed the decline to the community cooperation with the police, through civic groups, grant money or legislative support.

"I would like to take credit for the decrease, but does that mean I would have to take credit for the increase?" Eckhard said.

The St. Louis County police have not anticipated any increase in crime because of the economy, and neither has the city's police department.

But the decline in crime may not last.

"In my own work, when you look over time, say the last 30 years, crime rates do seem to go up during economic downturns and down during economic expansions," said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the American Society of Criminology's president-elect for 2010.

Rosenfeld said it may be too early for crime rates to reflect changes in the economy.

"The recession went into overdrive in the fall," he said. "The effects on crime rates may take about a year. I would expect some upward crime rates in the coming months."

Since the summer just began, crime is expected to swell. There are two schools of thought for why criminal activity picks up in the summer. Some believe tempers flare when the temperature raises, but Rosenfeld credits behavioral changes.

"People's activity patterns change during the summer," he said. "More people are outdoors."

Increases during the summer could skew perceptions that the economy caused the influx. Stimulus spending might mute crime, but it's too early to tell. 

"I can think of no reason this recession would have no qualitative difference on crime than previous recessions," said Rosenfeld. 

Christian Losciale, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at the University of Missouri at Columbia.