Property-related crime in Perth reduced by more than 40 per cent during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic hitting WA.
WA Police statistics for April, May and June revealed home burglaries dropped by 46 per cent compared to the same period last year, while vehicle thefts were down 45 per cent and credit card fraud plunged by 30 per cent.
The biggest reductions were in ‘crimes against property’, which includes burglaries, theft, arson and stealing. In contrast, offences which fall within the ‘crimes against a person’ category increased.
Family assaults were up by 13 per cent and breaches to violence restraining orders increased by 12 per cent. Drug offences were also up by 21 per cent.
University of Western Australia criminologist Joe Clare said the drastic reduction in thefts showed they were often opportunity-based.
He compared the trend to the drop in car thefts WA experienced after immobilisers became compulsory in 2001.
“Vehicle theft went away, but it didn’t go away because people didn’t want to steal cars anymore, it went away because they couldn’t steal them the way they used to because the opportunity had gone,” he said.
“Burglars prefer to break into houses when there’s nobody home and obviously if we’re all home all the time, then we have a shortage of what we call in criminology ‘suitable targets for burglary’.”
WA declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19 on March 15 and within weeks social gatherings had been restricted to two people, entertainment venues closed, and employees were being encouraged to work from home. To June, around one million Australians were out of work.
But Dr Clare dismissed the idea an additional fortnightly $550 COVID-19 welfare supplement introduced in April deterred people from committing crimes motivated by money.
“We’ve seen the same patterns of reductions all around the world and so obviously different countries have had completely different approaches to managing welfare,” he said.
“Only a really small percentage of people who receive welfare payments are committing burglaries.
“Offending patterns show we get a really, really small group of people who are actually responsible for a really disproportionate amount of crimes. They couldn’t find targets the way they are used to doing it so it just kind of stops.”
Dr Clare said the closure of nightclubs and bars also led to violent offences in entertainment precincts like Northbridge “falling through the floor”.
Dr Clare said the trend in increasing domestic violence offences likely reflected the movement restrictions imposed during the peak of the pandemic in WA.
“Domestic violence is an obvious crime type where there’s a lot of repeat victimisation and repeats often happen within a short period of time, and one of the reasons for that is the person cannot easily separate themselves,” he said.
Dr Clare said the trends showed a huge potential benefit in reducing opportunities for crime.
“Just like the vehicle immobiliser example, we didn’t need to detain all vehicle thieves or double sentence lengths or build more prisons or anything like that; we just made cars harder to steal and then vehicle theft stopped,” he said.
“So if we take the logic of that and flow it through to other things, rather than suggest crime could be prevented with tougher sentences or more police … how can we remove the opportunity for that crime to happen moving forward by being creative through things like design and security?”
Heather McNeill is the crime and courts editor at WAtoday.