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What Is the Relationship Between Natural Disasters and Crime?


How the Texas Power Outage Impacted Crime Rates

Many have deemed the response to the 2021 power outage in Texas a crime in and of itself. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner called on the state of Texas to pay for the electric bills that a bevy of Texans reported after severe winter weather knocked out their power and spiked energy prices. Some households have even been faced with utility bills as high as $10,000. Regardless of how you feel about the government’s response to natural disaster, one fact remains clear – natural disasters have the potential to cause upticks in crime.

The power outage in Texas was no exception to this phenomenon. Perhaps, the most notable uptick in crime was related to car thieves. Natural disasters like this distract the whole population, and those with criminal intentions find no better opportunity to strike. While the power was out in the state of Texas, two Dodge Chargers were stolen, along with several other cars. According to a local news report, five cars and nearly forty-five keys at Ancira Auto Group, a dealership in San Antonio, TX, were stolen during the storm. Someone took the opportunity to break into the dealership early in the morning.

Upticks in crime during natural disasters have been an issue our society has faced time and time again. After all, we are only human, and humans tend to react in adverse ways to drastic situations. While some sociology researchers assert that disasters reduce criminal activity during and after the event, criminologists who use social disorganization theory assert that disaster can increase the likelihood and occurrence of crime. Because we have seen this increase in crime affect the people of Texas, let’s look into the reasons why crime can increase during natural disasters:

  • Vulnerable people become desperate for shelter and safety.

During the power outage in Texas, residents faced record-low temperatures and millions were left without access to electricity. Some Texans were even evacuated from their residency and transported to shelters where they were greeted with warming centers. Many other natural disasters that have happened in the U.S. throughout the years, like hurricanes and wildfires, have left people fleeing their homes as well. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and even if you could never imagine committing a crime yourself, you can surely imagine how being in such a vulnerable state might cause you to act out of character.

  • Crowded spaces have the potential to increase instances of aggression.

Crowded spaces and mass gatherings have historically been known to lead to civil disobedience and violence. Mass gatherings are correlated with increased damage to both property and people. Fortunately, only a small number of crowds actually turn violent. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people in more densely populated cities show lower levels of friendliness, as measured by indicators like unwillingness to pick up something that a stranger had dropped and perform other acts of kindness. We could see how, when faced with a crowd, especially an unprecedented and vulnerable crowd like in the case of a natural disaster, this unfriendliness could escalate to criminal instances of violence.

  • Increased stress levels can cause individuals to perpetrate violence and other crimes.

Interestingly enough, crimes most often occur as a result of stress. In general, people commit crime because of greed, revenge, anger, jealousy, and pride. However, all of these feelings are usually due to some kind of psychological stress. Stressful events like natural disasters activate an individual’s “fight or flight” response. This causes the brain to release adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol. Not only does this chemical reaction lead to more impulsive and crime-ridden behavior, but it can also increase instances of addiction.

In 2010, for example, researchers from Center for Drug and Social Policy Research found that approximately one-third of Hurricane Katrina survivors who had been displaced to Houston had increased their tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use after the storm. Stress certainly takes a toll on our brains and causes us to act in ways we normally would not, and we see that play out in the way crime increases during natural disasters.

  • There is a lack of authority figures present during natural disasters, or the authority figures are distracted solving major safety issues.

During a natural disaster, the duties of a police officer change drastically. Not only do their duties change, but they must adapt in a way they likely never have before. They are still responsible for keeping the community safe from looting, destruction of property, and theft. However, at the forefront of their minds is likely evacuating citizens, rendering life-saving techniques, and securing points of dispensing sites. When your job description grows for a period of time, it is only natural that some of the duties are neglected, and it is likely that their priority shifts from the typical police duties to keeping citizens as safe as possible.

Although the police are not necessarily absent during natural disasters, they might not be attending to their typical duties with as much fervor. Criminals know this, and they might choose this time to take advantage of the situation. According to a study conducted by Florida State University and George Mason University, increasing police by 10% leads to a 3% reduction in property crimes and assaults. You could see how, when police are busy keeping the community safe, other areas of duty might fall more vulnerable to crime.

If you have found yourself facing criminal charges and need a criminal defense attorney, Derek A. Adame is here to provide the aggressive legal support you need. Give us a call or contact us online to find out how we can help.

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