On June 8, San Francisco voters recalled the city’s most recently elected district attorney, Chesa Boudin, because of perceptions of rising crime in the city. Two days later, the public hearings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol began.
Associating increasing crime and evidence of wrongdoing by former President Trump is not a coincidence.
There’s some debate whether crime rates have, in fact, increased. In San Francisco, for instance, the number of rapes and assaults fell below pre-pandemic levels while Boudin oversaw prosecution of crime in that city. Across the country, crime rates hardly crested in ways that suggest a wave; datapoints for all sorts of crimes, from the severe to the silly, are scattershot.
But the murder rate is the bellweather of crime data — homicides can’t easily be reclassiffied as other crimes that don’t end in death — and murder is up in San Francisco and elsewhere, rising from 5.1 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 6.5 per 100,000 people the next year, so something is happening although clear explanations elude us.
Until 2020, most blame for rises in crime landed on the so-called Ferguson Effect: the theory that public disapproval of law enforcement, as evidenced by mass protests, causes police officers to either fear enforcing the law because of criticism or legal liability, or to refuse to do their jobs without broad public support. Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, championed this explanation of crime. Former Director of the FBI, James Comey, reinforced the same idea in 2016; instead of calling it the Ferguson Effect, he called it the “viral video effect.”
“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’” he told reporters.
But right now, criminologists don’t know why violent crime is up in certain places. Inflation explains the increase in property crimes, but the increase in violent crimes is somewhat of a mystery, one that finds convenient explanation for the unprecedented chaos of 2020-21: The pandemic, stupid.
“A change in routine activities is related to a change in crime,” says Richard Rosenfeld, Curator’s distinguished professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
“One criminologist has referred to the pandemic as the greatest criminological experiment in history,” Rosenfeld continued. “I don't know if that's the case, but it certainly did fall in line with, in my business, what we refer to as the routine activity theory of crime. That is how crime patterns are tied to the day to day activities of the population.”
It makes sense to invoke COVID commotion to explain the unexplainable. But other historical events occurred simultaneously with the pandemic: namely, impeachments of the president.
The House of Representatives voted to impeach then-President Donald J. Trump on December 18, 2019 and the Senate acquitted him on February 5, 2020, two days after the Trump administration declared COVID-19 a public health emergency and twenty days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of a pandemic.
That was just the first impeachment. The second iteration of impeachment — when the House voted to impeach Trump again on January 13, 2021 and the Senate acquittal happened exactly a month later — coincided with the pandemic's second wave of infections.
The causation that some criminologists are attributing to the pandemic might well belong to the formal accusations against the leader of the free world.
Understanding why the crimes of a president could inspire or unleash crime amongst the electorate is where political sociology and the study of deviant behavior collide. Researchers from Washington State University went directly to that intersection, hypothesizing that, after the Watergate scandal, government institutions’ perceived loss of legitimacy would cause an “increased risk of revolution, rebellion, and/or wholesale violations of the laws.”
While the attitudes of people surveyed didn’t adhere to the hypotheses exactly, crime did increase after Watergate; the researchers weren’t wrong. After the crimes and cover ups committed by the various personalities connected with the scandal revealed themselves starting in 1972, rates of lawbreaking — outside the White House — rose, and significantly. Between 1973 and 1974, the number of overall crimes committed increased by 1,535,000, one of the largest jumps in the country’s history. Between 1974 and 1975, that same count went up by over one million again: 1,039,000 more crimes overall.
To be clear, the idea that a public exposure of wrongdoing at the highest levels of government and society delimits deviance doesn’t track entirely. In 1998, President Bill Clinton underwent the same House indictment-Senate acquittal two-step Trump did, but crime decreased in 1999 and thereafter.
But Clinton’s impeachment was different; institutions didn’t lose their legitimacy during that process— despite unethical and unorthodox behavior by special counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the three judge panel in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that appointed him.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal was about what a man did in the Oval Office, not the office itself. A president can ethically get his joint copped while occupying the position. Clinton was a classic case of sexual indiscretion, perhaps even harassment. His behavior was inexcusable, for sure, but nothing that the average cad hadn’t already done or couldn’t do in his own workplace.
Orchestrating break-ins on political opponents – whether in some swank Northwest Washington apartment complex or the House of Representatives — is never legal or ethical. These indiscretions are rarefied, almost impossible for the average American to conceive, much less pull off. It would make sense that exposing them could unleash mass repudiation of the criminal code.
This explanation of crime spikes doesn’t debunk the Ferguson Effect, which posits that police recede in the face of criticism of their treatment of the public. Rather, it’s the flip side of Ferguson; that criticism of police is just a symptom of law enforcement’s loss of institutional legitimacy. Crime follows the fall, like it did after Watergate, and as it’s likely doing now.
There’s not quite enough evidence — mercifully, the United States Congress hasn’t completed enough impeachments for a robust study sample — to conclude that indicting and tossing a president of office can set off a crime spree. It’s still just a theory. But it’s not an outlandish one.
Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.