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iCrime: Technoterror or Headline Grab?

It makes for terrific tabloid fodder: iPods Spark Crime Wave. That's the conclusion drawn by two researchers at The Urban Institute after they examined the recent spike in crime incidents across the country--a two-year upward trend that followed a solid 12 years of steadily declining crime. The researchers found no persuasive explanation for the abrupt shift in violent crime statistics except for the concurrent change in how people carry themselves in public--that is, the wearing of iPods and other expensive electronic gear. The technological innovation has resulted, they say, in "a marked increase in both the supply of potential victims and opportunities for would-be offenders."

Which leads us to today's Random Friday Question: The iPod crime wave--bogus balderdash or clever conclusion?

The fact of the mini-crime wave over the past two years is reasonably undisputed: After national violent crime stats dropped consistently and impressively from 1993 to 2004--falling a total of 38 percent over that time--the numbers moved in the opposite direction in 2005 and 2006. Why?

The Urban Institute researchers crunched the numbers to discern that some categories of crime were flat or down during the period of the overall upward blip. Thefts and auto thefts were down, while burglaries were flat. The big growth numbers came in the robberies category--and that's what led the researchers into their speculations about what they call iCrime.

Next, they looked at who was doing the robberies, and again they saw an interesting change: Whereas juvenile crime rates had been dropping, and robbery numbers for the over-18 set were actually almost flat, the incidence of robberies among under-18-year-old bad guys has jumped up--more than 11 percent in a single year.

Finally, the researchers took that finding and lined it up with the explosive growth of the iPod as social phenomenon. The various local crime numbers produced a match, they say: In the Washington area, iPod robberies account for four percent of those crimes this year, compared to just one percent in 2005. In New York City's subway system, robberies of iPods and similar devices soared by 18 percent in the first three months of 2005, while all other felonies actually declined.

The researchers cite similar anecdotal and partial evidence from around the country and around the world, building a decent circumstantial case that iPods attract robbers. And the researchers note that this is not a unique occurrence in the history of retail fads. "In the 1980s and 1990s, the proliferation of such valuable products as expensive basketball shoes or North Face jackets may have led to new crimes," they write.

Well, ok, but crime is not merely a factor of new and exciting opportunities for those raised with no moral foundation. In recent years, academics and police alike have suggested a number of other explanations for spikes in crime: The increasing economic inequality in this country, the ever-growing disconnect between those who do not get enough schooling and access to decent jobs, illegal immigration, ever-cheaper and easier access to guns, the general corrosion of the culture--take your pick, mix and match.

The researchers even cite some studies that ask whether the new emphasis on homeland security encourages more street crime by shifting both the strategies and manpower of police forces away from street crime and toward guarding buildings or investigating potential terrorists.

But some of these theories seem quite weak: After all, both the early release of bad guys from prison and the leap in illegal immigration were going on in the 90s, when crime rates were sinking admirably.

And, as the researchers note, none of those theories account for the fact that crime continued to stay flat or decline in many categories while iPod and other such robberies jumped.

The Urban Institute paper argues that iCrime is a phenomenon of opportunity. Fill your streets with folks wearing $400 gadgets and some of them are going to get ripped. Ok, that makes some sense, but how then do the researchers explain the fact that along with robberies, homicides spiked over the past two years? That's got to be more than a matter of having more potential victims on the street wearing expensive electronics, no?

But the researchers don't bother to account for the homicide increase. They prefer what they admit is a simpler explanation:

"...complex social dynamics, such as changes in young people's taste for violence, have not caused the spike in violence. Rather, the answer is simpler--there are more easily observed expensive objects to steal than there were four years ago, and they are being stolen.

The whole theory seems all too easy. I'm sure the ease of robbing an iPod plays a role in the increasing numbers--after all, who could possibly be an easier mark than someone walking along the street largely deprived of one of the two most important senses that could protect them from an intruder's evil designs?

It's reasonable to ask Apple and other manufacturers to work on technology that could disable a device if it is taken from its rightful owner, and indeed Apple is doing just that.

But the attractive combo of anecdote and correlation doesn't seem to add up to anything definitive in this case. Crime is no longer declining as it has for so many years, and that's worth examining in a more rigorous manner. There are enough big downward trends in this society to justify casting a wider net in the search for explanations. What do you think?

By Marc Fisher |  October 5, 2007; 7:13 AM ET
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Has anyone looked into the terrorist angle for these Ipod thefts? The components in an Ipod can be used to build a very sophisticated IED and can also be used for car or truck bombs. A first year engineering student can take an Ipod and a Uhual truck and do substantial damage with the loss of several hundred lives. Interesting thefts on on the rise in DC and NYC. A modified Ipod cant be detected by the current technology in airports either! Two modified Ipods can tak down a 747 in flight.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 5, 2007 7:21 AM

It's ridiculous. Even if the researchers hadn't comitted the correlation-causation fallacy, it's not like iPods have only been around since 2005. How come crime didn't spike in the three years beforehand?

Posted by: Zach | October 5, 2007 8:11 AM

Marc, you ignore one of the propositions that the study identified immediately- "iPod users may be less aware of their surroundings than users of other consumer products."

Walking around in la-la land with your buds in is akin to leaving your car doors unlocked on the street in DC. You're not a victim, you're a volunteer.

Zach, a legitimate causation is quite possible. You forget that an iPod is not the work of human hands but a gift of the great Jobs who reigns supreme over the lives of 10% of America. The newest iPod is worth killing your parents to get. And if you don't want to kill your parents, then whack some poseur and take his. Anything pre-iPod is just an mp3 player.

Posted by: athea | October 5, 2007 9:07 AM

Violent video games are to blame, make them illegal! Bin Laden is to blame, let's invade Binladenstan! The media is to blame for the news, ban Marc Fisher! Steve Jobs is to blame, Pants Man should sue him for $100 Billion Dollars!

Posted by: M Street, D.C. | October 5, 2007 9:31 AM

If we don't use iPods the terrorists win.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 5, 2007 9:50 AM

I have always figured my iPod was an easy target (and that the earbuds make me an easy target), and...well, I guess I've just resigned myself to it. I don't walk around dark streets wearing it, I keep it tucked in my bag, and I long ago swapped the white earbuds for black ones, so maybe people will figure I'm listening to, like, a discman.

Posted by: h3 | October 5, 2007 10:22 AM

iPods are not the only reason for the sudden increase in crime, but they certainly can be one of many reasons. Even though they were around before 2005, the numbers of iPods that were being used were relatively low. Now you cannot even get on to the metro with out seeing one or two dozen of the devices in the first couple of minutes. They are a small high value item that are easy to take, like cell phones, cameras and other gadgets. And using headphones that are not the standard apple white does not matter anymore because nobody actually carries a walkman anymore. More likely then not any headphones at all means some sort of mp3 player. Not to mention the fact the act of listening to music on headphones cuts people off from the outside world. So they will never notice someone slinking up to them ready to grab the mp3 player and run or hold them up.

Posted by: That Guy | October 5, 2007 10:53 AM

That Guy says: "nobody actually carries a walkman anymore."

I say: plenty of people still listen to Discman CD players on the Metro. I assume most of the Discman users can't afford an iPod and/or the computer you need to use it.

Otherwise, I agree that iPods may contribute somewhat, but not exclusively, to increasing robberies.

Posted by: SSMD | October 5, 2007 11:08 AM

Hmm, could it possibly have something to do with all of the issues with sub-prime morgages? That has been on the rise for the past two years. All of the sudden you have people who have lost their homes and may turn to crime? Maybe?

Posted by: Michael | October 5, 2007 11:51 AM

Could someone PLEASE blame the GOP for this!?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 5, 2007 11:54 AM

or its just a "what goes down must come up" situation. We think nothing of cyclicality in other phennomena - most notably GDP and the stock market. Crime should be no different. Two years that buck a long standing trend is hardly something to base a report on. It could just be a blip. I think it was an interesting, albeit academically opportunistic report. That's not even saying they're wrong - its just saying i don't think they have the evidence to back it yet.

Posted by: daniel k | October 5, 2007 12:08 PM

The Urban Institute report poses an interesting hypothesis. It doesn't pretend to have found definitive evidence. Moreover, Fisher's supposedly damning point about homicide is actually wrong. There has been no corresponding spike in murders (you only think there is if you're looking at the most recent 3 years in isolation). Only robberies and weapon offenses are rising fast, and only for the key age group 15-20, which supports the Urban Institute hypothesis. Murders have flattened, but are not yet spiking.

For proof, see my presentation of the most recent UCR data at http://jbutts.com/onlinepps/ucr2006.pps .

Full disclosure: John Roman is a friend of mine and I used to work at the Urban Institute.

Posted by: Jeffrey Butts, Chicago | October 5, 2007 12:28 PM

As a woman who commutes to work in DC and is in a long distance DC/NY relationship so I travel on 2 city subways frequently, my Ipod is a blessing. I don't have to deal with unwelcome advances or misogynist remarks from the typical Neanderthals in both cities, I can ignore panhandlers who will interrupt people reading but seem to leave those with earphones alone, I don't have to listen to Christian prosthyletizers or other people's cell phone conversations. It's a way of putting a barrier between me and those with whom I choose not to interact and who don't otherwise have the good manners to respect my personal space. I have to admit that sometimes I don't even turn it on. I'll put the earbuds in even if I have forgotten to charge my Ipod just to be left alone. As far as it increasing my chances of being victimized? Please... I'm a woman in a big city. I think that Ipod should come out with a option that has mace. Maybe that would solve the problem.

Posted by: CAC in Takoma Park | October 5, 2007 12:58 PM

Perhaps the Pod People are less alert, and thus more prone to violent crime.

Posted by: bkp | October 5, 2007 1:04 PM

The Urban Institute paper does not cite the chain-snatcher phenomenon, noted by transit police since the Disco era. Gold chain robberies have resulted in homicides of both victims and police.

Posted by: Mike Licht | October 5, 2007 3:53 PM

I just realized the sad irony of Fisher criticising someone for manufacturing an issue to grab headlines. He would know!

Posted by: bkp | October 5, 2007 4:12 PM

Technology already exists to track down stolen iPods and other gadgets. A startup in Portland, Oregon called GadgetTrak ( www.gadgettrak.com ) has had a solution for several months.

Posted by: Ken Westin | October 5, 2007 7:23 PM

If iPods were designed so that they could not play rap, then the theft problem would go away.

Posted by: Columbo | October 6, 2007 8:39 AM

I blame the GOP for this.

Posted by: Bill | October 6, 2007 11:38 AM

If every Ipod comes with a K&KMk21 and a concealed weapons permit this problem will end real quick. After the first 100 or so dirtbags meet their maker the problem will end. Will also reduce other crimes in the long run too, have a positive effect on DCs fiscal health and require less cops!

If Congress would get off their fat butts and pass a law making it mandatory to carry and dispaly your handgun in DC then crime would drop dramatically.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 6, 2007 4:27 PM

I agree that people listening to music with headphones are less aware of their surroundings and thus make easy targets for theft/robbery. Moreover, thieves might see your ipod or the ubiquitous white earbuds and figure that you have something worth stealing.

Posted by: Meeg | October 6, 2007 6:51 PM

After the first 100 or so dirtbags meet their maker the problem will end. Will also reduce other crimes in the long run too, have a positive effect on DCs fiscal health and require less cops!
--------

Because the one thing we can say is that when the police shot the 14 yr old burglary suspect, it caused no problems.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 7, 2007 7:35 AM

I wonder if the booming housing market contributed to the rise in crime? With the rapid gentrification of urban neighborhoods across the country, more haves are in close contact with have-nots. It seems plausible that crimes of opportunity might skyrocket...

Posted by: woof | October 7, 2007 10:22 AM

White people buying condos in the ghetos of the city - walking down dark alleys wearing shiny white $$$$ gadgets, ignoring the panhandlers who ask them for change every day. If you blow off the panhandlers long enough they will hit you with a stick when you aren't looking. I can hardly blame them.

Posted by: Guest | October 8, 2007 7:51 AM

The spike in crime correlates exactly with the Red Sox winning the World Series. A similar thing happened the last time they won in 1918, the infamous race riots of 1919. The most likely culprit is the air of euphoria that even casual sox fans have carried since 2004, which makes them appear oblivious to their surroundings and makes those around them indifferent or hostile toward them.

Lord help us if the Sox get past the Indians and win it again this year!

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