COVID-19, protests, and crime

During a summer internship with the Law School’s David Abrams, rising sophomores Caroline Li and David Feng looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s racial justice protests affected America’s crime rate. 

Three police cars with sirens flashing are seen in a line from behind police crime tape at night
How did the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s racial justice protests affected America’s crime rate? Two undergrads worked with Law professor David Abrams to find out.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended so much so quickly when stay-at-home orders forced most Americans indoors in March 2020. For Penn Law economics professor David Abrams, who has spent the last two decades studying crime, a key question for the moment was how the pandemic would affect America’s crime rate. Would forcing people to stay home lead to calm? Could a sense of detachment lead to lawlessness?

Last summer he launched a series of projects aimed at analyzing data from cities around the nation to get to the bottom of how the pandemic affected crime. 

“Crime dropped in a big way as the pandemic hit, which turns out to be the same thing that happened 100 years ago during the 1918 flu pandemic. That’s the short-term takeaway,” Abrams says. This initial drop in crime has been swept away by the current, headline-grabbing spike in homicides and shootings getting a lot of media attention, but even now not all crimes are up, he says.

Man in a white shirt and blue blazer holds onto a metal staircase railing with blurry cafe table behind him and a red brick and glass building.
David S. Abrams is a Professor of Law, Business Economics, and Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and Wharton. (Image: Courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law)

There remain deeper takeaways from the pandemic’s effect on crime to be uncovered, he says. What happens when police stops on the streets get interrupted by pandemics or by protests? What happens when police presence varies?

“Those are actually bigger, more important questions ultimately, but they’re ones that take longer to answer. That’s why we’re still doing the research.”

This summer, the projects continue and are getting a boost from two undergraduate interns: Caroline Li, a rising sophomore from Lexington, Massachusetts, studying economics at the Wharton School, and David Feng, a rising sophomore from San Francisco, majoring in computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The initial project involves a website Abrams created at the start of the pandemic called City Crime Stats, which started as a way to track crime during lockdown but has since transformed into a site that tracks criminal justice data from 27 major cities across the United States.

Separately, Abrams’ team is going beyond what happened in the pandemic, looking at the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and different aspects of crime like police stops. Li and Feng are getting crime data from police departments around the country; removing incorrect, duplicate, or incomplete data; and moving towards analyzing it.

“These big changes in such a short period of time offer a chance to learn about what impacts crime in a way that we normally couldn’t,” Abrams says of COVID and the racial justice rallies and protests of last June. “We hope this research will help to expand our basic understanding of what impacts crime.”

In high school, Feng was a debater and says he found himself wondering about the backstory of the statistics and data he was using to bolster his arguments. This led to his interest in computer science and analyzing data so he could learn how data was utilized to determine trends in society. That’s also what drew him to Abrams’ project. 

Man in a baseball cap takes smiles into the camera on a sunny day with a forested hillside in the distance behind him
David Feng is a rising sophomore majoring in computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences from San Francisco. (Image: Courtesy of David Feng)

“There’s no better time to look at data than now, during COVID. It’s such a monumental moment in modern history with social and economic repercussions that ripple all throughout America,” says Feng. “Seeing that I could use my technical skills to help contribute to this research was really important to me.”

As part of his internship Feng has completely redone the City Crime Stats website. 

“He’s made it much better and much more useful,” Abrams says, noting the site has been particularly valuable to journalists. “I’m really happy with how useful it’s been to the public, and I think it will be even more so now.”

Li was drawn to the internship because she wanted to get a sense of how academic research worked at an institution like Penn. “As a high schooler, you don’t understand research and having this experience gives a great, broad overview of how academic research at the collegiate level is conducted,” she says. 

Girl in black blazer and yellow shirt smiles in front of bush covered in red flowers
Caroline Li is a rising sophomore from Lexington, Massachusetts, studying economics at The Wharton School. (Image: Courtesy of Caroline Li)

She also liked how timely the topic was, looking at both COVID and the protests and how it let her put her economics background to work. “I’m interested in trying to use techniques from economics across other fields, so I really appreciated the way that this project allows for that.”

Feng echoed that it’s been helpful getting a sense of how his technical skills can be used in other fields. 

“Having this experience helped me realize that there are so many applications of technology and computer science, from criminal law to sociology to nonprofits and finance,” he says. “There’s such a broad-base application of it, and I’m really glad that I was able to apply it to something I care about and am passionate about.”

The goal for the research projects is to provide information for a number of academic papers, including a working paper on police stops that they recently presented at the National Bureau of Economic Research’s summer meeting, Abrams says. The first paper to emerge from the project, published in January in the Journal of Public Economics, is an early look at the pandemic’s effect on crime. He envisions a number of other papers will take shape from the project.

Despite the challenges of working together virtually, Li and Feng are making the most of the internships, which are supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program (PURM).

“It's always a pleasure working with PURM students, but these two have been especially fantastic,” says Abrams. “It’s impressive to see what Penn undergrads, with one year of college under their belts, can contribute to ongoing research, and that’s something I’m very, very happy with.”

David S. Abrams is a professor of law, business economics, and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and the Wharton School. 

This opportunity was offered through the Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships, specifically the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program for first years and sophomores. Each student receives an award of $4,500 for the 10-week summer internship.