Chief David Todd of the Fargo Police Department periodically abandons his desk to walk the beat downtown. In recent weeks, he found the North Dakota streets so utterly deserted that he commissioned a movie about it.
Shot in black and white, the short, stark film shows police officers patrolling an eerily empty city: People evaporated from stadiums and playgrounds. Sidewalks purged of pedestrians. Shopping mall parking lots turned into vacant expanses. There is no narration, only a cover of “The Sound of Silence.”
“The quiet and sadness is something that we have never experienced before,” said Chief Todd, a 32-year veteran of the police force. “I thought we should try to capture this, where we are right now, not just our community, but our nation as a whole.”
The absence of people during the coronavirus pandemic has produced a rare payoff in Fargo and most American cities — a steep drop in major crimes.
“The dynamics of street crimes, of street encounters, of human behavior are changing because people are staying home,” said Philip M. Stinson, a former police officer turned criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University.
Crime, say those who study it and those who fight it day to day, requires three things — a perpetrator, a victim and an opportunity.
With tens of millions of Americans off the streets, would-be victims and opportunities for crimes have vanished, causing a drop in the number of perpetrators committing infractions. The dip in crime is compounded by the fact that some police departments have been hampered by quarantines, or have made fewer arrests to limit interactions or to avoid filling the jails.
Crime did not entirely disappear, of course, and some of the worst offenders remained undeterred. Homicides in numerous cities remained flat or even rose. Burglaries of commercial properties and auto thefts have often multiplied, as criminals exploited shuttered stores and unattended cars.
Young men, considered the most violent demographic, have adopted a certain swagger in many places, police officers and criminologists said. With fewer witnesses around and with the police less likely to stop them, they feel less vulnerable to being caught. The men also find it easier to track down rival drug lords or gang leaders, who are mostly sheltering at home like everyone else.
In Las Vegas, where police said crime fell more than 22 percent during the initial two months of the lockdown, the Strip area, with its crowded nightclubs and bars, had traditionally had its problems with crime. Since it was largely devoid of tourists for weeks, crime migrated to some residential streets.
“Gang members are certainly the part of society that goes out and looks for trouble and is trouble,” said Andrew Walsh, deputy chief in the homeland security division of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “Covid-19 has not changed things like old beefs or a fight over a woman.”
The disease also brought unexpected new hazards.
Police officers in multiple cities in Michigan have been spit on by people screaming that they have Covid-19. Under an old law against using harmful biological material to assault someone, threatening exposure to Covid-19 is a felony that carries a five-year prison term, said David Leyton, the prosecuting attorney in Genesee County, Mich. His cases include a suspect accused of menacing shoppers inside a grocery store, then licking a window inside a police cruiser.
In Kirkland, Wash., among the first coronavirus hot spots in the United States, officers put plastic face masks on people they are arresting to prevent spitting. The city has also been battling a rash of mailbox thefts by people looking to steal federal stimulus checks, Chief Cherie Harris said.
History indicates that hard times often reduce crime. Chicago showed a marked drop in murders in 1918, when America faced the devastating Spanish flu, according to records analyzed by Leigh Bienen, a law professor at Northwestern University. After 293 killings in the city in 1917, the number fell to 260 in 1918 before rising to 345 the following year.
The flu might not have been the only factor, she said. Yet other municipalities also reported a decrease.
Crime rates similarly fell during the Great Depression that started in 1929, as well as during the 2008-9 recession, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“That runs contrary to common perception that as misery spreads, crime rates should go up,” Dr. Rosenfeld said. “When there are fewer potential victims on the streets, there will be few potential crimes, regardless of the increases of the level of economic distress or misery.”
For the month ending on May 17, most major crimes in New York City were down 21 percent from the same period last year, according to department statistics, although murders were unchanged, burglaries were up, and car thefts jumped almost 68 percent.
There were no clear patterns across all cities, according to Christopher Herrmann, a professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Murders this year were up 14 percent in Philadelphia and 85 percent in Nashville but fell 2 percent in Baltimore and 11 percent in Atlanta. Nashville was a rare city with increased crime over all.
But Dr. Herrmann and other experts are wary about such statistics, suggesting the data is too raw and too recent to confirm trends. Desperate shopkeepers might report their stores burglarized to collect insurance, he said, but it will be months before insurance inspectors start working again to confirm such thefts.
In Manhattan, one suspect arrested in early May was accused of breaking into 19 restaurants, making off with some $30,000 in cash, alcohol and electronics.
“They are targeting the very fabric of New York City, small merchants and businesses that had to close because of the pandemic,” said Chief Michael Lipetri, head of crime control strategies for the New York Police Department.
The trend is not limited to big cities. The police in McMinnville, Ore., southwest of Portland, said they arrested 26 people suspected in 35 break-ins over a monthlong period, compared to 14 burglaries in April 2019. A pattern of unusual thefts of clothes and electronics from area churches first alerted the police, said Capt. Rhonda Jaasko, the patrol captain.
Some less violent crimes have been on the rise, too, particularly speeding. The police clocked someone in rural Iowa going 170 miles per hour on a motorcycle, said Sgt. Paul J. Parizek, the spokesman for the Des Moines Police Department. Another driver was ticketed for hitting 98 m.p.h. on a city freeway, he said.
Besides crime, many police departments reported that they are dealing with a higher number of drug overdoses and suicidal callers. Police officers in Kalamazoo, Mich., responded to one overdose in December, said David Boysen, assistant chief for public safety. In April, there were 26, and two of those people died.
One drop in crime statistics may actually be worrisome: Some cities indicated a decrease in both domestic abuse and child abuse calls. The police in those cities said they suspected that abuse was actually more prevalent, given that most people are stuck at home. But with no teachers to spot bruises in the classroom, and nowhere for people to escape their abusers, such crimes were less visible, they said.
With the country gradually reopening, experts wonder whether crime will rebound to its previous levels, as perpetrators and victims interact again. Large American cities last experienced a sustained slide in crime for some 13 years after 1992, said Wesley G. Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who studies police programs, calling the reasons “one of the great mysteries of the end of the 20th century.”
Dr. Herrmann, of John Jay College, has a paper set to be published this fall detailing how crime fell near a Bronx subway station during its reconstruction. It took about two weeks after the station reopened for the numbers to rebound to previous levels, he said, but the post-lockdown rise will likely be slower because people are still hesitant about going outside.
Still, police officers are bracing for what happens next.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” said Chris Bailey, assistant chief at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. “It makes me a little nervous from the crime perspective.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.