Can weather predict crime?

Over the past several years, the relationship between weather and crime rates has emerged as a major focus in the field of criminology. The overall consensus among researchers is that severe weather—high temperatures, large amounts of precipitation, etc.—leads to more crime. According to the Department of Justice, burglaries are 10.5 percent more likely to happen in the summer than in the winter and violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assault are also “significantly higher.”

Weather Photo

“Many studies show a correlation between weather and crime, with crime increasing during hotter weather,” said Dr. David McDowall, a criminology professor at the University of Albany. “I believe these findings are valid as a set because they appear consistently over many studies using different data and methodological approaches.”

One of the prominent theories as to why crime rates seem to rise along with the thermometers can be summarized in two words: scarcity and aggression. The former term is more commonly used in low-income areas, where drastic weather can render people fighting for survival; the desperation of these circumstances often results in crime. The latter term is based on the idea that people experience pent up anger and agitation as temperatures become more stifling and are then more likely to release these emotions in violent ways.

Crime rates for Dutchess County follow this trend as well. According to a three year spread of data conducted by governing.com, crime is most common in the county during the summer months, with June marking the single most crime ridden month at an average of roughly 118 offenses. This figure is significantly higher than the county’s average of 94 monthly offenses.

Both the average monthly temperature and the average monthly crime rate in Dutchess County can be viewed in the figures below:

Weather Graph Crime Graph

One interesting caveat to the data is that there appears to be a heat ceiling. For example, July boasts the hottest average temperature in Dutchess County, but is only the fifth most crime-ridden month. According to McDowall, however, this is an entirely normal occurrence. When temperatures reach sweltering peaks, crime rates often dip because the heat becomes too oppressive even for criminals.

Although the data shows a strong correlation between climate and conflict, some refute the idea that hot weather intrinsically causes crime.

“I don’t know if there’s any set correlation,” said Sergeant Paul Caccia of the Hyde Park Police Department. “I just think warmer weather brings more people out.”

Captain John Watterson of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office echoed these sentiments, saying, “We pretty much notice seasonal crime rates, not crime that’s dependent on the heat. When the [winter] weather breaks more criminal mischief and petty theft occurs, whereas in cooler weather you see indoor crimes like larceny and bank robbery.”

However, these opinions also rest on a valid criminological premise known as opportunity theory.

“A variety of explanations for these findings exist and one of the most common ones is that more people are outside as temperatures increase,” McDowall said. “This gives [people] more opportunity to argue with others and gives thieves more of a chance to steal unguarded property. Simply, more opportunities for crime exist during hotter weather.”

So, whether it’s through increased aggression or increased opportunity, hotter weather creates the perfect storm for a spike in crime.

A silver lining does exist, however. Although heat indexes have continued to rise for the past five years—with 2015 projected to be the hottest year ever recorded, according to various sources—Dutchess County has seen a gradual decrease in crime rates over that same span. Much of this may be due to the fact that local police departments have used weather related data to calibrate their tactics.

“In the summer we host different programs, receive bigger stipends and coordinate patrols differently,” said Caccia. “All this has helped us limit crime in the area.”

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