Of course, not everyone who gets laid off is likely to turn to crime, experts say. Safety nets such as unemployment payments are usually effective in reducing desperation in hard times, said Robert McCrie a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "People are busy painting their house when they're unemployed," McCrie said. "They don't say 'Hmmm, I've been laid off, I think I'll try robbery next week.'"
Indeed, crime experts are cautious about blaming the recent increase in homicides in some major cities on the economic downturn or any other specific factor.
They need only look to history to see that crime rates are often unpredictable. During the Great Depression, for example, crime went up for two years as poverty and desperation ran rampant among the American people, but then fell through the remainder of that era.
And short-term increases in crime do not always signal a lasting trend. Take this year's spike in homicides in Phoenix, for example. As of last Wednesday, 224 homicides occurred so far this year compared to 172 last year. But police there say this year's numbers are "getting back to normal" after a sharp uncharacteristic drop in 2000 after policy changes at the nearby border with Mexico.
In Chicago, police say the uptick in homicides there is perplexing. Crime across the board has not increased — rates are down for other serious crimes such as robbery, sexual assault, and auto theft. "That's what makes it so difficult, there's nothing you can pinpoint," said Patrick Camden, deputy director of media relations.
'Twin Cities,' Different Crime Experiences
Even if crime does creep back up again, many experts say police tactics that have become more common since the early 1990s could help to keep crime at bay. "The good news is the policing strategies that have been effective over the last 10 years would work in a downturn as in good times," says Robert Castelli, criminal justice and security management professor at John Jay College.
Such strategies include "community policing," which loosely refers to a proactive approach in which police are involved with the court system, schools, public health officials, social welfare agencies, religious groups and neighborhoods to identify problems before crime occurs.
Many police departments are also using computers to aid them in identifying crime patterns. New York City was the first to use the Comstat method of law enforcement, or comparative statistics, which helps police analyze crime data and hold precinct commanders accountable for crime, even minor "quality of life" infractions, at weekly meetings.
Lucy Gerold, deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, credits her city's version with helping reduce crime even as St. Paul, Minn., just across the Mississippi River, has seen crime hikes along with the rest of the state.
The "twin cities" have had divergent experiences with crime despite similar economic conditions, Gerold said, suggesting that effective strategies can work even in a recession. "We have seen decreases that cannot be accounted for by good times or other simplistic ideas," she said.
But other experts warn that specific policies only account for so much of any crime trend. "Looking at specific crime control strategies, they may be effective but it takes 10 years and makes up 2 percent of crimes," says UCLA's Monkkonen. "When any official takes credit for the drop in crime, I am suspicious."