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Economic Downturn and Home Foreclosures: Do They Affect Rural Crime Rates?

The recent downturn in the economy has touched all Americans in one way or another. The drop in the stock market has taken millions of dollars from personal bank accounts. Retirees and baby boomers preparing for retirement have seen their pension funds and 401k’s slashed by up to 40% in some cases. Unemployment numbers have risen to nearly 10% nationally and even higher in some states. The collapse of the housing industry, principally due to questionable lending practices by home lending institutions, has left millions of Americans upside down on their mortgage loans and forcing many homeowners into foreclosure.

Foreclosures in Rural America

The foreclosure issue may be most problematic for small town and rural America. Nieves (2008) reported that in the rural community residents have fewer banking choices and may fall prey to higher interest rates and predatory lending practices. Vergin (2008) reported that, “foreclosures increased by 184 percent from 2005 to 2007 in the small cities and rural areas of Minnesota (p. 5). Bellamy (2008) found even more troubling results in Ohio with foreclosures in rural counties increasing by 462 percent between 1994 and 2007.

Has the impact of foreclosures in our rural communities led to an increase in crime and disorder in these areas? There is debate among researchers whether or not any downturn in the economy really affects the crime rate. It has generally been accepted that a bad economy can lead to a hike in crime; yet, some researchers reject that argument. In a recent interview with National Public Radio (2009), David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Reduction at John Jay College of Criminal Studies pointed out that during the Great Depression there was very little crime while just a decade earlier during the “Roaring Twenties”—a time of great prosperity, there was a very high crime rate. Of course, some researchers would argue that Prohibition helped lead to the higher crime rates in the 1920s as well as the introduction of organized crime in America. Kennedy did not believe that the typical law-abiding citizen who had just lost his job would resort to pulling stickups, but conceded that a household that is economically stretched and especially those with a history of domestic violence, may become even further strained.

The foreclosure problem has impacted our communities and particularly, the crime rate. Immergluck and Smith (2006) conducted a study that determined that higher foreclosure levels do contribute to higher levels of violent crime. Specifically, the study found that for every increase in the foreclosure rate of about 2.8%, there will be an increase of neighborhood violent crime of approximately 6.7%. The authors remind us of the well-known Broken Windows Theory developed by Wilson and Kelling (1982) who argued that physical and social disorder causes crime. As more homes are foreclosed and left abandoned or unattended, they can become drug havens or magnets for vandalism and other illegal activities. When the community is left unchecked and social controls break down, fewer residents take responsibility for their neighborhoods and the criminal element takes hold. This possibility may be more likely in a rural community where residences are more spread out and neighbors have a more difficult time “policing” their own neighborhoods.

If crime rates do rise during an economic downturn, it may not only be a result of an increased number of offenders in “desperate straits” who commit crimes they may not otherwise have considered. During a poor economy, the tax base in our communities is affected. Tax income may be reduced as businesses are forced to close their doors, property values drop, or residences remain empty or unsold as a result of foreclosures. This loss of tax revenue requires our elected officials to tighten the belt. That belt tightening will most likely affect the sheriff’s office budget giving it fewer resources to combat the crime problem. We have seen agencies forced to institute hiring freezes, eliminate nonessential positions, or lay off deputies. Some nonsworn positions that had freed deputies to perform “law enforcement” functions have been eliminated requiring additional duties for sworn personnel. Equipment and training needs may also be put on hold. The lack of adequate coverage by patrol officers in the community, the lack of newer equipment and technology, and the interruption or elimination of training can all contribute to a spike in crime, not to mention having a negative effect on officer safety.

Homeowners who are facing home foreclosure may engage in behaviors like committing economic crimes out of desperation to keep their homes or expressive crimes out of fear, anger, or frustration over what they see as their hopeless situation. Several possible consequences of the downturn in the economy and the increase in the numbers of foreclosures are provided below.

Increase in Economic Crime

Would the desperate husband and father about to lose the family’s home resort to some form of theft? Recently, a small rural community in North Carolina was in shock when one of its own—a middle-aged man—inexplicably robbed a bank and then when stopped by police, killed himself. The stress of economic hardship can cause an individual not prone to criminal behavior to engage in it. The rural sheriff’s office should be prepared for a possible increase in thefts and robberies during the economic downturn. Be more watchful of stolen merchandise that might appear at the local flea markets and pawnshops which are often prevalent in our rural communities. Additionally, investigators should be suspicious of even the most unlikely of suspects.

Robbing a bank or breaking into a house to steal may be a drastic step for the first-time and novice offender. However, engaging in retail theft may seem to be a less frightening endeavor. There has been a marked increase in retail crimes such as shoplifting, fraudulent use of credit cards, and even return frauds. The National Retail Association (2008) reported that a survey of 52 major retailers in the United States has discovered an 84 percent increase in theft/amateur shoplifting and a 76 percent increase in financial fraud. Robberies and burglaries of retail stores have also increased in 2008. The survey indicated that opportunistic criminals have moved from urban centers into a number of rural areas. Most alarming is that many amateur shoplifters are stealing items of necessity such as groceries or wearing apparel more likely for their personal use. Although there are still numerous organized shoplifting rings, it would not be surprising for the rural deputy to arrest an individual who has no prior criminal record and was simply trying to feed his family or get school clothes for the kids.

There has also been a spike in the amount of retail returns fraud which comes in several forms. Offenders can use a falsified receipt to return merchandise. Some offenders steal price tags from lower priced items and place the tag on a higher priced item to purchase for their use or to return the item later to receive the higher price. Then there is the “customer” who purchases merchandise for temporary use only to return it for a refund after use. The National Retail Association estimated that there were nearly $12 billion of fraudulent merchandise returns in 2008, up eight percent from the previous year.

Another economic crime that is on the rise is insurance fraud which often involves suspicious fires to vehicles or property. Nipps (2009) wrote that the National Insurance Crime Bureau reported that the number of referred fraud cases nationwide rose 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year. In the article, Nipps quoted James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud who called insurance fraud, “a personal bailout stimulus package. Normally, honest people who wouldn’t steal a candy bar from a drug store start feeling financial pressure and do desperate things.” Quiggle went on to say that, “research shows that people’s moral compasses are growing more wobbly. This is an extraordinary moment in U. S. economic history and it’s having an effect on people’s attitude toward crime.” Rural law enforcement should be prepared to investigate any charges of fraud and any suspicious fires to vehicles and structures to rule out possible arson as a cause.

This last economic crime that is on the rise seems to be right out of the old west. Lamar (2009) reported that cattle rustling is becoming a bigger problem, particularly in the southwestern states. Crime reports indicate that more than twice as many heads of cattle were stolen in Oklahoma and Texas in 2008 than the year before. Unlike the rustlers who “drove” stolen cattle, today’s rustlers are striking at night, loading cattle into trailers or onto trucks and hauling them away. In rural communities where there are cattle farms, law enforcement should advise cattlemen to protect their herds by 1) making daily counts, 2) maintaining their fences, and 3) reporting suspicious vehicles in areas around their pasture lands.

Economic Stress and Family Violence

One of the most common causes of violence in the home is economic stress. Law enforcement must be watchful for a possible increase in domestic violence, not only in homes where they have responded to previous calls, but during an economic downturn, in homes where they have not been called in the past. When the breadwinner (more often the male in a rural community) sees what he has built for his family slowly slipping away due to a recent layoff or an impending foreclosure, he may snap and the object of his anger could be his spouse. We may also see an increase in calls involving physical child abuse as a result of the parent or guardian lashing out at the children in the household. Finally, it might be expected that suicides could be on the rise. The sheriff’s office must deal with allegations of spousal or child abuse as well as apparent suicides by conducting thorough investigations. They should also be prepared to assist a family in crisis by referring them to the appropriate social service agencies and governmental assistance programs that have become available during this economic and foreclosure crisis.

Growth of Hate Groups

There is a suspicion that the number of hate groups and new recruiting into existing hate groups is on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center which has tracked hate groups for nearly thirty years, recently reported that since the year 2000, the number of hate groups including Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and black separatists has increased by 50 percent in the United States (Potok, 2009). The report attributes this increase to the debate on immigration, the election of the nation’s first black president, and the recent recession. A Department of Homeland Security report that was published in April 2009, warned that hate groups are growing and that military veterans could be targets for recruitment. The recent killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. by a reported anti-Semite and the murder of an abortion doctor in Kansas—though isolated cases—may ring the alarm of further possible violence from white supremacists and other hate

Many of these groups tend to form in isolated areas such as in our rural communities and more politically conservative regions of the country. Although most rural residents would not actively participate in such groups, there should be a concern that residents may support their extreme views and turn their heads to their activities. There is still great suspicion that Eric Rudolph, the abortion clinic bomber, had received help from sympathetic residents who harbored him during his five year run from the FBI. Rural law enforcement agencies should be watchful for growth of these groups by relying heavily on confidential informants and criminal intelligence gathering.

Growing Numbers of Homeless

As more foreclosures occur, some families will be without an alternate place of residence.The homeless problem is typically an issue in our more urban areas and involves homeless individuals, not entire families. Foreclosures that lead to homeless families in our rural communities could become a situation that rural law enforcement agencies may not be equipped to address. Because most rural communities are tight-knit groups with families that have often resided there for many years, dealing with a problem of homelessness might be best treated as a social problem the community must address and not as a “law enforcement” issue. The rural law enforcement agency should work closely with local social service agencies to assist these families in distress.

Early Inmate Release Programs

The reduction in tax revenue during an economic downturn not only affects the sheriff’s office budget, but state corrections agencies as well. This budget shortfall has led many states to consider early release programs for large numbers of inmates. For example, the state of California which has a budget deficit of $26 billion has considered release for about 27,000 inmates, many of whom would be released early (Yi, 2009). With a recidivism rate that traditionally hovers around two-thirds, it would be a safe bet that many of these former inmates will be up to their old tricks again. Law enforcement agencies must be keenly aware of the “clientele” they may be dealing with on the streets.

Conclusion

Residents in our rural communities have been hard hit by the current recession, especially those who have lost jobs, lost savings, and lost homes. Desperate people do desperate things, even sometimes those of us who have been law-abiding citizens. It is debatable whether a downturn in the economy leads to an upturn in crime. Still, the rural law enforcement agency should be prepared to deal with a possible increase in crime and for the time being, do so with fewer resources.

References

Bellamy, P. (2008). A look at rural foreclosures in Ohio. Rural Voices, 13 (2), 13-14, 19.
Immergluck, D., & Smith, G. (2006). The impact of single-family mortgage foreclosures on neighborhood crime. Housing Studies, 21 (6), 851-866.
Lamar, J. (2009, April 6). Cattle rustling thriving in Southwest in bad economy. University of Arkansas, Division of Agriculture.
National Retail Federation. (2008, November 13). Retailers adjusting return policies to provide good customer service in down economy. Return Fraud Survey 2008.
Nieves, E. (2008, April 3). Rural communities hit by foreclosures. USA Today.
Nipps, E. (2009, June 11). Tough times push some to torch cars for cash. St. Petersburg Times.
Office of Intelligence and Analysis. (2009, April 7). Rightwing extremism: Current economic and political climate fueling resurgence in radicalization and recruitment. U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Potok, M. (2009). Resurgence on the right. Intelligence Report, 134, Southern Poverty Law Center.
Sullivan, L. (2009, June 10). Experts: Bad economics don’t cause crime waves. National Public Radio.
Vergin, S. (2008). Minnesota uses statewide strategies. Rural Voices, 13 (2), 5-7, 18.
Wilson, J.Q., & Kelling, G. (1982, March). Broken windows: The police and neighborhood safety. The Atlantic, 29-38.
Yi, M. (2009, July 22). Inmate release plan imperils state budget pace. San Francisco Chronicle.

Christopher R. Capsambelis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Tampa. He recently published the book, “Policing Rural America: A Handbook for the Rural Law Enforcement Officer.” He can be reached at ccapsambelis@ut.edu.