We met with Dr. Richard Rosenfeld to discuss predictors of crime rates, protests and violence, spikes in crime, and much more. Enjoy!
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld talks with student Karina Macosko regarding what criminology is and what criminologists do in their career. He also discusses why crime rates fluctuate over time, including ways in which economic conditions, consumer confidence, and inflation can be strong predictors of crime rates. Richard Rosenfeld and Karina Macosko also discuss recent protests and how they relate to spikes in crime. He believes that the violence seen in so many cities in the wake of George Floyd’s death was not necessarily caused by the protests themselves. Dr. Rosenfeld also offers advice to young students who are interested in criminology, and even to students outside of the field.
By taking a broad range of courses, you'll have a much richer approach to your academic focus.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld
See additional leaders in criminology and criminal justice in our article
Top Influential Criminologists Today
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from AcademicInfluence.com, and I am here with Professor Rosenfeld from the University of Missouri–St. Louis. And so here at AcademicInfluence.com, we’d just like to know…
…how did you get started in your field and what influenced you to go in there?
Richard: Okay. Well, my PhD is in Sociology from the University of Oregon. I was at the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate for the first two years, and the first course I took there was a course in Sociology taught... It was team-taught by two faculty members, Jerry Marwell and Nicholas Demerath, and that course blew my mind, that class blew my mind. And at that moment, I decided I’d major in Sociology.
I then went to graduate school in Sociology at Oregon, and while I was there decided that I would write my dissertation on crime, even though I’d never taken a course in Criminology. My mother was living in St. Louis at the time, and she got mugged two times. She wasn’t hurt badly, but she was shaken, and that plus my general interest in social inequality led me to study the relationship between inequality and crime, and that turns out to be the title of my dissertation.
So that got me interested in crime, and I did a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University under Alfred Blumstein , who is still called the Dean of American Criminology, and that really solidified my interest in crime. I began defining myself as a Criminologist, and the rest is history.
Karina: [chuckle] Wow, that is so interesting. And before you took this class, did you have any idea you wanted to go into this field, or what were you thinking you might major in?
Richard: I was thinking I would probably major at Wisconsin in History. I’d gone to Wisconsin because it had a very strong American History program, but I took that course in Sociology and that just changed everything. I don’t think I ever did take a course in History at Wisconsin. I might have taken one. I spent all my time, it seems, taking Sociology courses.
Karina: [chuckle] Wow, that is so cool. And you call yourself a Criminologist, right?
Karina: Can you explain to us what do you do, or what do Criminologists in general do?
Richard: Sure, Criminology is the study of law-making, law-breaking and the social response to law-breaking, such as the criminal justice system. I spent... So Criminologists study lots of things in lots of different ways. A lot of Criminologists are interested in the question of why one individual would commit crime and another individual wouldn’t commit crime.
Richard: Some are interested in why some places have higher crime rates than other places. My interest, by and large, has been in why crime rates go up and down over time. So my research tends to focus on crime trends over time.
Karina: Wow, and what did you find? Why do crime rates go up and down over time?
Richard: Well, there are lots of reasons, depending on where we’re looking and when we’re looking. My research is tended to focus on economic conditions and their relationship to changes over time in crime rates, and so I found that two variables in particular seem to have a very robust influence on changes in crime rates over time.
One is, we typically call consumer confidence, and that’s based on surveys of individuals that ask them how they’re doing financially, how they’re doing now compared to a year ago, how they think they’ll be doing at this time a year from now. And generally speaking, they’re asked about their views of the overall economy. That variable tends to be pretty closely associated with crime rates over time.
The other one is the inflation rate, the rate of increase in prices. And that one in particular, I should say, is a highly robust predictor of crime rates over time, both for the nation as a whole and for individual cities. So those are the two economic conditions that tend to loom large in my research.
Karina: Wow, that is fascinating, and what about right now, are we in a rise in crime or are we in a decline in crime?
Richard: It depends on the type of crime.
Richard: During the COVID period, we’ve seen a drop in property crimes, burglaries, larcenies... Larcenies are thefts, not accompanied by force, or breaking and entering, which would be a burglary. Think shoplifting, when you think of larcenies. During the initial months of the response to COVID, a lot of businesses were closed, and when retail shops are closed, there is no shop lifting. So larcenies, but also home burglaries have been going down over the past several months.
Violent crimes were flat or going down during the initial COVID period, but they began to spike in cities that I’ve looked at in my research, during the last week of May and into June. And as you may recall, during the last week of May, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis.
What is clear is that, the spike in violence is community-wide, city-wide…” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld
Richard: And so the timing of the spike in violent crime coincides with the emergence of protests against police violence, police misconduct, that were widespread across the country. It’s not clear, to me at least, exactly how the protest activity might be related to the spike in violence. What is clear is that, the spike in violence is community-wide, city-wide, in the cities we’ve looked at. It’s not directly attributable to protester activity, but it does coincide in time with the protest, also coincides with the impact of COVID on police departments, police presence, police activity, have been reduced, because of social distancing requirements, and that could have spurred some of the increase in violence. So there’s a long story there, but I’ll leave it at that.
Karina: Well, and that is so interesting what you’ve said, that the violence is not directly correlated to the protest, can you explain that a little more?
Richard: Yeah, what I meant to say was that it’s not that the violence is being caused by the protesters. There is, and there certainly was, in some places early on in the protests, violence and property destruction.
But the violence we’re talking about is homicide, aggravated assaults, which are very serious assaults, assaults committed with a firearm. Those increases are not directly tied to the protesters themselves, they occur in the cities where the protests have occurred, and they tend to occur in communities in those cities that have traditionally had pretty level... High levels of violence. They tend to be disadvantaged communities economically, communities of color, typically, and it’s in those communities, where we’ve seen the biggest spikes in violence.
The violence tends to be concentrated in communities, that have historically had high levels of violence.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld
Despite what some of your viewers may have heard about violence spreading to the suburbs, there’s no indication that that’s occurred over the last several months. The violence tends to be concentrated in communities, that have historically had high levels of violence.
Karina: Interesting. Wow, that is so interesting. And just in terms of a day-to-day life. What might a Criminologist do?
Richard: Well, again, it depends on the kind of Criminology they do. Some Criminologists study prisons, and so they interview prisoners or prison officials. Some Criminologists study the making of laws, and so they study legislative processes, and how those processes result in particular kinds of laws affecting crime. Other Criminologists like me, sit at our computers most of the day, and study changes in crime rates as they occur in cities or states or nations, and then try to figure out what the sources of change are in those rates. Other Criminologists hang out with criminals. They study active offenders. Several of my colleagues here have done that, and so what Criminologists do, on a day-to-day basis, really depends on the kind of Criminology that they do.
Karina: And, when you were in school, what kind of classes would you take, in order to become a Criminologist?
Richard: Well, again, I didn’t take any classes in Criminology.
Karina: Oh, interesting.
Richard: In fact, I’ve never taken a class in Criminology. I did a post-doc, a post-doc, for your viewers, is after you finish your PhD, what people often do, your dad may have done it, is they go on to do a year or two, at another university, although sometimes at the same university where they receive their PhD, to do research, extending on their dissertation or moving beyond their dissertation. And then they typically go on to take a position at a research university, and that’s what I did.
Karina: Interesting. And something that I often ask people who we interview here is, if you could go back, and do it all again, go through college again, do you think you would have chosen the exact same path, the exact same major? Yeah, would you... If you did it all again, would you do it the exact same, or is there something you would have changed?
Richard: I don’t think I would have changed much. What I would have done, is taken more courses outside of Sociology. I had to take the bare minimum, in order to get my degree. But I would have taken courses... I would have taken more courses in History, for example, not just US History, but European and World History. I would have taken more courses in Economics, given my current interest in economic conditions in crime.
Select your area of interest, when that's appropriate, but don't forget to take courses broadly, outside of your area of interest.” – Dr. Richard Rosenfeld
Now, you can can’t take an unlimited number of courses, of course but that would have meant reducing somewhat the number of Sociology courses and broadening out a bit, and that would be my advice to you, and others who are about to go to college. Select your area of interest, when that’s appropriate, but don’t forget to take courses broadly, outside of your area of interest. That’ll be of great assistance, once you begin to focus, if you go to graduate school or whatever you do after you leave college. By taking a broad range of courses, you’ll have a much richer approach to your academic focus.
Karina: Well, thank you so much for that great advice, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really learned a lot, so thank you so much.
Richard: You’re Welcome.