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Sunday, July 12, 2009 | As San Diego wades through its worst recession in decades, with spiraling unemployment, stagnant home prices and shrinking incomes, residents might be forgiven for believing the county is on the verge of a crime wave, where the fiscally desperate turn to illegal activity to survive.

But statistics are showing crime actually going down in this horrific economy. Both the number of reported violent crimes and property crimes in San Diego County dropped in the first five months of 2009 compared to 2008, mirroring a trend of recent years.

The number of property crimes reported in the county in the first five months of 2009 dropped 7.4 percent compared to the first five months of 2008, according to crime statistics provided by local law enforcement agencies. And the number of property crimes reported from January to May 2009 was also down almost 18 percent from the same period in 2007, according to the stats.

These numbers don’t surprise experts who say that while it may seem logical that crime should go up as economic times get more desperate, that’s not what usually happens. A poor economy can lead to increased numbers of certain crimes such as domestic violence and suicide, but it won’t cause an overall uptick.

“When we look at why crime goes up, we just don’t see a huge correlation between the economy and crime rates, it’s just not one of the bigger factors,” said Dana Nurge, an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University.

History bears this out.

Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, studied the historical crime rate during the Great Depression and found that crime rates, particularly property crime rates, remained markedly low in the years after the stock market crash of 1929. He said national crime rates have historically remained low, or at least steady, during times of economic hardship.

“People watch their property more carefully, everybody is in the same boat,” McCrie said.

There are actually very few links between how a region’s economy is faring and its crime rate, said Stuart Henry, professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. Society has a finite number of people who are willing to commit crimes, and they are going to commit them regardless of what the economic barometers say, Henry said.

“People who aren’t currently engaged in crime aren’t suddenly going to become crime converts because they are out of work,” Henry said.

There are, Henry said, a tiny minority who will be driven quickly from working for a living to committing crimes in order to support themselves. But these people are unlikely to have a significant impact on crime statistics, he said.

However, there is some evidence that tough economies can cause the instances of some violent crimes to eventually go up. When the economy is stressed, people are stressed, McCrie said, and that could lead to higher rates of domestic violence, suicide and assault.

Three high-ranking members of the San Diego Police Department, who were granted anonymity because they are not allowed to talk with the media, said in recent months the city has seen a noticeable uptick in domestic violence and suicide calls and also a recent surge in street robberies.

While the statistics may not yet reveal this trend, police officers around the city are busy responding to calls related, if indirectly, to the worsening economy, the officials said.

“Look around, we’ve got more homeless people on the street than we’ve ever had, domestic violence is increasing and we’re seeing an increase in street robberies, there’s a lot of desperation out there,” one of the officials said.

Henry said what San Diego is seeing is par for the course.

“Often you’ll see an increase in violence, but that’s violence not to commit crime, but domestic violence, violence in the home — people lashing out at the people around them,” he said.

In turn, that increase in domestic violence could also have a domino effect on crime rates in future years, said Nurge. Children raised in stressful, troubled homes are much more likely to commit crimes as they get older, she said, so the fiscal troubles of today and the stresses that accompany them, could manifest itself in the years to come.

“That’s where we could see the uptick first,” she said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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