Thursday, May 9, 2013

CRIME | Cell Phones, Plus and Minus (Update April 9, 2015)

Crime rates have been falling, maybe because cell phones
 provide a fast way to call police. But in the USA and in the
UK, cell-phone theft is rising. The remedy is now the target. 
The Institute for Economics and Peace recently put out the UK Peace Index, which got me thinking about crime rates.

Five days before, the London Economist included an article, “Down These Not So Mean Streets” (April 20), showing the steady decline of British crime rates over two decades, to half its earlier levels,. despite a continuing serious recession.

The same week, the British Crime Survey (a household survey comparable to the U.S. Victimization Survey - a supplement to the Uniform Crime Report) also reported a continuing drop in crimes.


There has been a steady decline from the 19 million estimated in the mid-1990s to 8.9 million crimes – the same 50 percent drop that the Economist cited from police reports, although the police recorded only 3.7 million crimes. 

Compared with 2011, crimes fell as much as 15 percent in the UK for the category of criminal damage. Robbery (stealing with the threat of violence) was also down more than 10 percent.

The UK Peace Index at the same time showed that the incidence of violent offences – which is higher than in the United States, although injuries and deaths from such events are much less seious – is falling faster in the UK than in other countries in  Europe or in the United States.


The Financial Times the next day pinpointed the incongruity between data and theories propounded by economists about the causes of recent trends in crime rates. The article, “Crime Drop Poses Puzzle for Social Scientists”, cites the following factors as contributing the lowered crime rate:

Police Deployment. The British Government claimed credit for the crime drop through better use of police, as the number of UK police deployed has fallen to the lowest level in more than ten years. Police are used more effectively than in the past, but crime rates have continued to fall, long after police methods changed.

More Perps in Prison. Hard-liners in the USA and Britain argue that tougher sentencing that jails more criminals has pulled criminals off the streets and served as a deterrent others. Since the 1970s, starting with Nixon’s war on drugs, the USA built up the largest prison population in the world, to the recent level of 2.2 million, a fourfold increase in incarceration in 1978-2008. With less than 1/20th of the world’s population, the USA now has one-fourth of its prisoners. The higher incarceration rates and sentences originally targeted drug sales. But later the sum also rises for violent (murder, robbery, assault) and property crimes - and while U.S. incarceration rates have recently been declining, most crime rates continue to fall.

Reduced Air Pollution. If you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. High lead in the air has been seriously linked to teenage misbehavior, so environmentalists like Jessica Reyes argue that reduction in lead in gasoline could explain lower crime rates. This may well have been a contributory factor. But the reduction in lead has been gradual - is the impact of this likely to have been so rapid and continuous?

Legalized Abortion. Stanford Law Professor John J. Donahue III and Chicago Economics Professor Steven D. Levitt in 2001 argued that legalized abortion meant that fewer children were being born to mothers who could not afford an abortion - or did not dare to get one - when it was illegal. But this event analysis could be confused with something else that is occurring at the same time. The original article is well-constructed. However, the thesis and data, disseminated in Levitt’s Freakonomics book, have been widely disputed. Critics observe that the presumed causality based on national law does not work very well with state data and changes in state laws.

Missing from the FT story is another hypothesis that does a good job of explaining both the decline in general crime rates and an increase in larceny (thefts from people's person without threats, i.e., skillful pickpocketing) and certain robberies.


Growing Cell-Phone Use.  Cell phones and pocket-sized communication and photographic technology started to come into widespread use in the 1990s, when crime rates started to plunge. Cell phones provide users with the ability to call friends and police if they are threatened or come upon a crime, and could explain the rapid drop in crime. The addition of photo-taking capacity to cell phones made them even more effective. This theory is supported at both the national and  the state level, according to >University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Jonathan Klick; , John MacDonald, chair of Penn’s Department of Criminology; and Thomas Stratmann of George Mason University, in their paper Mobile Phones and Crime Deterrence: An Underappreciated Link,”

Growing Cell Phone Crimes. Now cell phones are increasingly the target of thieves. The fastest-growing area of crime in the USA and Britain is theft of cell phones. Here are some indicators:
  • In London, 300 cell phones are stolen every day, half of them iPhones.
  • Men tend to robbed, i.e., have the phones taken from them by force, whereas women tend to be victims of larceny, i.e., they have their cell phones taken from them by stealth.
  • The likely London victim is a yuppie in their 20s at a club or other "place of entertainment".
  • In San Francisco, stealing of cell phones accounts for half of all robberies, and Bay Area Rapid Transit is a likely place for thieves to operate.
  • In Oakland, a man came out of an anti-crime meeting at a police precinct house and was relieved of his cell phone at gunpoint.
  • In New York City, cell phone theft now accounts for 40 percent of robberies. 
  • A young chef from MOMA on his way home was stopped and killed for his iPhone 5. 
  • In a widely reported story a few months ago, a Brooklyn cell phone thief had the stolen cell phone swiped from him by another cell phone thief. Thief #1 reported the crime to the police, providing information that allowed them to trace Thief #2. Both of them were arrested in a highly satisfying day for the NYPD.
  • From a thief's perspective, the theft of a cell phone has the advantage of removing from the victim the means of calling the police, although in an urban environment there are many ways to get lost in a crowd.
What We Can Do Personally to Protect Our Cell Phones.  The New York Times today devotes two-thirds of a page to "Outsmarting Smartphone Thieves". Seven pieces of advice from Malia Wollan:
  • Be aware when you use the iPhone in public. In San Francisco, one M.O. is to slap the victim on the back of the head and catch the iPhone.
  • Use the password  - the iPhone can be set up with a four-digit password. Use it.
  • Write down the ID number of the iPhone.  You need to know your iPhone's International Mobile Equipment Identifier, the IMEI. The easiest way to find it is to go to the dial pad and type *#06#. Two other ways are in the article. Then record it somewhere where it can be found in a crisis - such as on your partner's iPhone. My IMEI number is 013037000631140. You can have the number recorded by your local policed station. Because of the high incidence of the crime, the NYPD is delighted to register your cell phone IMEI.
  • Use location tracking apps. It is free on Apple products.
  • Brick the iPhone.  Call the police and your cell phone service carrier. The iPhone can be made inoperative (like a brick) even if the thief changes the SIM card, unless the iPhone is exported. Keep the 800 number for your carrier somewhere other than on the iPhone.
  • Change passwords. Having your iPhone stolen is a pain because passwords may be stored in them. Credit cards, banks... Change the passwords.
  • Stay one generation behind the latest iPhone. In April a woman in the San Francisco area was relieved of her cell phone at gunpoint. But the thief returned it to her because it wasn't an iPhone 5. Protect yourself by being behind the times a little.
What Can  Companies and the Police Do to Stop This Crime? Here are some ideas:
Senator Chuck Schumer with NYPD
Commissioenr Ray Kelly.
  • The police are becoming highly active in encouraging iPhone owners to bring the devices in to have the identification codes recorded. This will help them catch cell phone theft more quickly.
  • The police are properly encouraging us all to be more watchful. We can also be on the alert to warn iPhone users about the frequency of iPhone theft.
  • Police involvement in identifying cell phones makes it more likely that these thefts will be reported. The robbery/larceny rate is likely to continue to climb until there are better ways to catch the thiefs.
  •  Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have advocated a national registry of cell phone numbers. This is coming on line, but not so quickly.
Meanwhile, watch out for theft, report incidents, and support programs to reduce crime.

Update (April 9, 2015). Cell phones are now crime scene records. The implications of this for the police and for crime control are still being figured out.