NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller fears the economic hardship induced by the coronavirus pandemic will unleash a crime wave in coming years, undermining long-term progress to curb illegal activity.
Observing that the immediate COVID-19 crisis and its lockdowns have not caused the major spike in family violence and domestic crimes that were widely feared, Commissioner Fuller said police were making preparations to tackle a surge if job losses persist.
“We have been doing an enormous amount of work with government looking back at the 1990 recession, because there is some similarities around unemployment numbers and the drop in GDP and progressively, probably 18 months to two years after that recession, crime went through the roof,” he said.
Authorities are still focused on the immediate pandemic response but they are seeking to ensure that “we don’t lose control of public safety in NSW”, Commissioner Fuller said, adding that he was monitoring the effect of JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments and their withdrawal.
“My theory is that, if we don’t track this closely, we could end up seeing the same sort of crime in volume that we saw in the early 2000s,” he said.
The 1990s recession started in the September quarter of 1990 and formally lasted until the September quarter of 1991. During the downturn, GDP fell 1.7 per cent and the unemployment rate rose to 10.8 per cent.
Between 1990 and 2000, a number of crime types increased significantly, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. Break and enter offences went from 58,862 in 1990 to 81,650 a decade later. Sexual assaults went from 1606 to 3525. Robberies without a weapon went from 3022 to 6894.
Crime rates have largely improved or remained stable since the early 2000s. Police Minister David Elliott confirmed he and Commissioner Fuller had been discussing the potential for crime trends to go backwards, in the wake of the coronavirus-induced recession.
“That’s an evidence-based observation from the Commissioner so I have absolutely no reason to doubt it’s a serious possibility,” he said.
However, Mr Elliott said he was optimistic about economic recovery and managing the downturn.
“Because the recession has not been caused by structural deficiencies in the economy, it has been caused by something that ideally we will have a vaccine for early next year. I am actually of the view it will be more like the post-World War I recovery where we saw a boom in economic activity and opportunity,” he said.
Some data suggests COVID-19 measures have caused some increase in domestic violence nationally, with an Australian Institute of Criminology survey released in July finding domestic violence victims said it had worsened during the pandemic.
Don Weatherburn, a professor with UNSW’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and former director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, cautions that the effect of economic hardship on crime is complex.
Professor Weatherburn said some crime, including property theft, would not go up but there was a real risk that long-term unemployment could exacerbate other criminal activity.
“When things go bad, whatever is going up at the time will go up faster,” he said. “At the moment, the big growth areas are fraud and drug dealing.”
Professor Weatherburn said the environment was different to the 1990s and early 2000s, partly because theft of consumer goods was no longer as popular and robbery was not as lucrative today as people carried cards not cash.
He said the huge increase in crime in the 1990s did not start with the recession and began in the mid-1980s.
He also said the effect on family violence was “a bit of puzzle”, because people were more likely to commit domestic assaults when under financial stress but an increase did not necessarily show up in overall crime statistics.
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