Murder: Crime Displacement over Time and Space

Posted on Posted in Data Science

In May of 2004 a coordinated search of Inwood Hills Park ended when police discovered the badly decomposed remains of Sarah Fox.  Fox had disappeared days before, shortly after she left her apartment for an afternoon jog.  In the days that followed, the neighborhood experienced a heightened level of caution, police presence in the area increased and media and news organizations held a constant vigil across the street from Fox’s apartment complex. It is a romantic suggestion that a neighborhood will come together in tragedy, albeit temporarily.  However, anecdotal evidence does suggest that under such circumstances the criminal element will lay low and bide its time until the heightened level of caution and police presence subsides.  While this makes intuitive sense, is there evidence to support such a conclusion?  This paper is the result of simple question: in the short term, is a neighborhood safer after a murder?  Is there a causal relationship between murder and common street crime?


The literature suggests two theories on criminal behavior: contagion effect and displacement effect.  These effects provide a theoretical explanation as to why the traditional choice model of constrained optimization does not fully explain the observable variability in crime across space and time.  Under the constrained optimization model, criminals seek to maximize utility given a fixed constraint such as civil and criminal penalties.  Criminals will commit crimes when the expected benefits exceed the expected costs (Becker 1968). Chang indicates that criminals look for easy opportunities; burglars prefer homes, large commercial buildings, or buildings with alleyway access over more closely guarded buildings (2011). This suggests that criminals consider costs and benefits and look to optimize benefits under risk constraints.  However, neighborhood demographics alone do not account for the variability in crime across time and space. Glaeser states, “Positive covariance across agents’ decisions about crime is the only explanation for variance in crime rates higher than the variance predicted by differences in local conditions” (Glaeser 1996, 508).  The gap in explanatory power suggest that there are other significant forces beyond the traditional choice model.


Narayan, Nielsen, and Smyth’s work in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology indicates that there is a natural rate of crime that remains impervious to efforts to reduce crime rate in the long-run (2010). They call short-run variations from the long-run natural crime rate structural breaks.  Contagion and displacement effects are the principal sources of these deviations from the natural rate of crime in a given time and space.


Glaeser explains contagion theory as peers’ influence overshadowing the criminal’s innate disposition towards crime (1996). Peers influence a criminal’s preferences by reducing stigma or increasing social distinction. Through misinformation, peers distort a criminal’s frame of reference and understanding of the costs and benefits. Peers can relax constraints by assisting directly or providing some technology or special knowledge that decreases a criminal’s likelihood of being caught (Glaeser 1996). Contagion effects involve copycats and retaliatory crimes as well (Jacob 2007). When peers’ actions influence a criminal’s decision to act there is a multiplier effect; the neighborhood’s actual crime rate will increase beyond a predicted crime rate based solely on neighborhood demographics (Glaeser 1996).


Hesseling explains the displacement effect as an inelastic demand for crime: “offenders are flexible and can commit a variety of crimes; and the opportunity structure offers unlimited alternative targets” (Hesseling 1994, 220). Criminals will not abandon their criminal pursuit at infinitum when encountering an obstacle. Instead, they will seek another opportunity to commit a crime with a similar cost benefit analysis. Criminals alter their course of action in order to bypass “conditions unfavorable to the offender’s usual mode of operating” (Gabor 1990, 66 in Harding 1994). The crime is displaced to “other times, places, methods, targets or offense” (Repetto 1976 in Hesseling 1994, 198). Individuals have a specific desired outcome for committing a crime. Hesseling’s detailed overview of related literature supports the rational choice aspect of displacement theory.


Displacement can occur in a variety of ways making it difficult to measure and account for. Researchers examine the effect case by case in discussions about motivations and strategy with criminals or in measuring the statistical impact of a policy on crime reduction in a myriad of times and venues (Hesseling 1994). We employ the later methodology.


We assume that murder, our quasi-experimental treatment, is particularly newsworthy and sufficiently shocking for the neighborhood to react strongly. We predict that we should see an increase in police presence and general wariness among the local population. Inhabitants of the neighborhood will be more cautious and act so as to limit their vulnerabilities for becoming victims themselves. We expect this to have a negative effect on street crime. Criminals will restrain illicit activities until such time where the community and police force are not as alert. Criminals will displace crime into a different area or into a later time period. Murder should have a displacement effect on street crime in the short run.  


Oakland, the eighth largest city in California, is rife with crime. It is home to 390,724 people. Since 2007, there have been 874 murders, and 105,589 crimes committed, that is a crime for every four people. Given the high level of crime, it will be the source for our experiment.


The Oakland Crimespotting project compiles data on crimes from the City of Oakland’s CrimeWatch program which publicizes data from daily police reports. Crimespotting combines crime data and mapping in a convenient matter.  The data comes in a format with a single observation for each crime.  Each observation includes variables that identify the type of crime, location (longitude and latitude), and date when it occurred.  This data is current to the day, and it extends back through 2007. Crimespotting divides the data into thirteen categories: aggravated assault, murder, robbery, simple assault, disturbing the peace, narcotics, alcohol, prostitution, theft, vehicle theft, vandalism, burglary, and arson.  However, Crimespotting does not include data on weather conditions.  It is plausible that weather would influence crime.  Weather Underground offers historic data on the temperature and level of precipitation.


We aggregate the data because is too granular to work with in its raw state.  We sum the observations across zip codes and by date in order to obtain the total amount of crime for each day in each zip code (or neighborhood). We identify the dates of all murders and subsequently calculate the average amount of crime that occurs in the following week as well as for the week prior.  


We apply the same process for those neighborhoods that did not experience a murder in order to determine the crime rates in neighborhoods in which a murder did not occur. From this second group we select neighborhoods that are comparable in terms of their crime rates. In order to ensure that we match similar neighborhoods, we restrict the data to a range of two standard deviations from the mean number of crimes committed per day in a zip code with a murder. To determine these cutoff points, we identify the average neighborhood crime rate conditional on there being a murder, which is 7.5.  The lowest average crime rate was 2.8, and the highest was 15 crimes a day. We drop from our data those neighborhood time period combinations that have an average of fewer than 4.5 crimes a day and neighborhoods that have greater than, on average, 10.5 crimes a day. Such a restriction would eliminate neighborhoods on both ends of the crime spectrum. After all, murders in an extremely crime ridden area would likely not illicit the same dramatic response as murders in a more moderate neighborhood. Additionally, neighborhoods with historically low crime rates will not boast substantial enough crime rates to generate any responsible understanding of causal effects.


Our model uses two specifications to determine if street crime in Oakland has any sensitivity to murder:  before and after, and difference in difference.  Both the before and after and difference in difference specifications assume the counter-factual that crime rate will remain unchanged in the absence of a murder in the area in which a murder took place.  The difference in difference also assumes that the general crime-rates in both the treatment and non treatment areas are similar; the standard errors for both groups are statistically equivalent.  If the standard errors are different or if we detect contagion or displacement effects the specification is unsubstantionable.  We check these assumptions with an OLS specification with a lagged variable for when a murder occurs to see its effect on crime.


insert equation 1


Preliminarily, we employ the before and after approach and look at only the neighborhoods that have murders.  We compare the crime rates before and after each murder.  This is a basic comparison of the average crime rates in the time periods before and after each murder. For this specification we assume that the crime rate in the post-treatment period is equal to the pre-treatment crime rate in the absence of a murder.  Without any shocks or intervening variables, crime rate should maintain its historical trend.  Thus, any change in the crime rate is attributable to the murder.


The natural extension of the before and after analysis is to include a control group for comparison.  The difference in difference specification allows us to do this.  We can compare the average crime rates before and after each murder.  We can also compare crime rates between  neighborhoods with murders and those without.  To complete a difference in difference specification we use two dummy variables that partition the sample into four groups.  The first dummy variable, treatment, partitions the sample in two halves based on their treatment status.  The second dummy variable, post, partitions the halves in quarters based on the time period.


insert equation 2


We identify neighborhoods in Oakland that match in terms of crime rates and geographic size. We assume that demographic and macroeconomics variables (economic prosperity, level of unemployment, ethnicity, and association with a given crime group) are held constant across the two neighborhoods during the week long intervals before and after a murder. This is a necessary evil given the lack of data available on such indicators on a scale smaller than the city level.


We control for several variables.  We assume that crime rates vary based on the date and whether school is on holiday; so, we control for the date a crime was committed. Additionally, we control for the particular neighborhood (zip code). Existing literature indicates that crime rates are highly correlated to drug use. We generate a dummy variable for the first seven days after the first of the month. Government distributes entitlements on the first of the month; therefore, drug addicts will likely spend this disposable income on drugs and spend the next couple of days in a drug induced stupor. Crime should decrease over that short time period. We control for weather, temperature, and precipitation.  It is likely that on hot, dry days crime will increase. However, on cooler or rainy days criminals are more likely to stay of the streets.


insert equation 3


Our results indicate that there is no causal relationship between murder and street crimes. (* Indicates a value that is not statistically significant.) Graph 1 depicts the average daily crime rate leading up to and after 40 murders in our sample. The red vertical line is day the murders happen. The black line represents total crime and the other lines represent corresponding crime categories: red for violent crime, green for crimes relating to property, and blue for miscellaneous crimes. This is visual evidence that murder does not have a causal effect on crime.





The before and after approach reveals that there is not sufficient preliminary evidence to support our hypothesis. A murder in Oakland decreases other street crimes by one twentieth of a crime, .05*. The average week in an Oakland neighborhood sees 8.58 crimes a day.  During the week following a murder, in a given neighborhood street crime drops to 8.53* crimes a day.


The difference in difference specification does not provide evidence to support our hypothesis.  Murder has a coefficient of 1.3757 (.3008) suggesting that murder, as a treatment, actually is positively correlated with crime rates. A post-treatment time frame variable indicates, on contrast a slightly negative correlation with crime rates. The interaction term between these two variables, and a more holistic view of the difference in difference effect, is .1805* (.4250). While ever so slightly positive, this correlation is statistically insignificant with a relatively large standard error and a particularly small t-statistic (.425). Indeed, only the treatment and the temperature control have a standard error large enough to prove significant (4.574 and 5.280 respectively).


We note that precipitation, first of the month dummy, and multiples homicides variables boarder on statistical significance. With a t-statistic of -1.806 and a coefficient of -.1802, multiple murders (or a weighted impact of murder) has a negative correlation to crime. On a rainy day, one can expect a small blimp in crime rates. Additionally, with a coefficient of .5362 (.2781), the first of the month dummy variable is positively correlated to crime rates. T-statistics less than 2 render the results dubious. See Table 1 for more details.


Table 1

Estimated Coefficient Standard Error T-value
Murder 1.375720 0.300775 4.574
Post 0.032416 0.301222 0.108
MurderPost 0.180461 0.425041 0.425
Temperature 0.076992 0.014583 5.280
Precipitation 0.010179 0.005694 1.788
First Week 0.526237 0.278059 1.893
Multiple Murders -0.180162 0.099745 -1.806


To check for the robustness of our model, we replace murder with another high profile crime: arson. Like murder, arson is positively correlated to high rates of crime with a coefficient of 3.598. When interacting with the after treatment variable, arson appears to have a very slight negative effect on crime rates (-.049)*.


Previously, we looked at crime as a whole; however, to analyse subtle effects we look at how murder impacts categories of crime. Murder is strongly correlated with violent crimes; however, it is more weakly correlated with property crimes and what we refer to as miscellaneous crimes: disturbing the peace, prostitution, alcohol, and narcotics. The difference in differences mechanism reveals a similar trend, albeit a statistically insignificant one. Murder has a small negative effect on future instances of miscellaneous and violent crimes; however, there was a very small positive correlation with property crimes. See Table 2 for specific figures.


Table 2

Types of crime Estimated Coefficient of Treatment Estimated Coefficient of Post Estimated Coefficient of TreatmentPost
Violent 1.315547 (0.125213) 0.030097* (0.125213) -0.137175*


Property 0.865536 (0.154010) 0.041623* (0.154010) 0.170580*


Miscellaneous 0.809375 (0.095011) 0.018875* (0.094612) -0.011316* (0.133721)


If our hypothesis were to hold, murder should have a more dramatic effect on crime rates during the short term (a two day time frame) compared to a long term (a 30 day time frame). However, both time frames yield similar results -.3686* and -.30036* respectively. While, the long term effect is slightly smaller, the difference is insignificant. However, the t-values are -.626 and -.738 respectively.


Our initial question has also gone unanswered due to lack of evidence.  Our simple question was not adequate to illuminate such a complex issue.  We found that murder is strongly correlated with crime, however, our results on the effects of murder on post-murder crime rates proved statistically insignificant and extremely small. The process was valuable in helping us form better ideas about pursuing this area of study.


Fundamentally, we need to ask a different question.  We learned that crime is a complex social issue with a lot of variability.  Looking at a short time frame was not beneficial in reducing the impact of this variability.  In light of our research into contagion and displacement effects, had we more time we would revisit our empirical specification.  To assume away contagion and displacement effects on the basis that they were unobserved is ill-advised. To rectify this we would want to explore more substantial time elements beyond the simple time frame of before and after.  Similarly, we would want to look at more subtle geographic variations in crime rates. This would preclude the difference in difference model in favor of another option.  


Similarly, the lack of controls for neighborhood demographic data concerns us. We cannot find such data at the neighborhood level.  We could have created a variable, day, that counts the days in relation to their relative position to a murder, similar to Graph 1.  We could then use this variable in a fixed effect specification.  Additionally, to test more effectively for geographic displacement, we would want to be able to look at geographic units smaller than the zip code level. However, with the data and tools accessible to us, this was impossible.  Finally, we should expand the study to include a broader range of cities. Any result based solely on Oakland data is not generalizable to the nation or criminology as a whole.


Our theoretical framework is based on the assumption that murder is a sufficiently heinous crime to illicit a strong response to it and therefore to induce a displacement effect in the short run. Ultimately, however, our experiment suggests that murder does not have a strong displacement effect. It simultaneously suggests that murder does not induce a contagion effect.




Becker, Gary S. 1968. “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Journal of Political

Economy 76:169–217.

Chang, Dongkuk. 2011. “Social Crimes or Spatial Crime? Exploring the Effects of Social, Economical,

and Spatial Factors on Burglary Rates.” Environment & Behavior 43, no. 1: 26-52.

Gabor, T. 1990. “Crime Displacement and Situational Prevention: Toward the Development of Some

Principles.” Canadian Journal of Criminology 32: 41-73.

Glaeser, Edward L., Bruce Sacerdote, and José A. Scheinkman. 1996. “Crime and Social Interactions”

The Quarterly Journal of Economics 111, no. 2: 507-548.

Hesseling, René B.P. 1994. “Displacement: A Review of the Empirical Literature.” Research and

Documentation Centre, Ministry of Justice, The Netherlands. (accessed 7 April 2011)

Jacob, Brian, Lars Lefgren, and Enrico Moretti. 2007. “The Dynamics of Criminal Behavior: Evidence

from Weather Shocks.” Journal of Human Resources 42, no. 3: 489-537.

Narayan, Paresh Kumar, Ingrid Nielsen, and Russell Smyth. 2010. “Is There a Natural Rate of

Crime?.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 69, no. 2: 759-782.

Reppetto, Thomas A. 1976. “Crime Prevention and the Displacement Phenomenon.”

Crime & Delinquency 22:166-177.

Tompson, Lisa, and Michael Townsley. 2010. “(Looking) Back to the Future: Using Space–time Patterns to Better Predict the Location of Street Crime.” International Journal of Police Science & Management 12, no. 1: 23-40.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *