A new study from University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Jonathan Klick, along with colleagues at Penn and George Mason University, speculates that a one-third drop in crime rates in the 1990s might be due to cellphones providing a deterrent for criminals.
“Mobile phones allow for quicker reporting of crimes, and, in some cases, real time communication of details about the crime and the criminal,” the authors write in the study. “The perceived risk of apprehension could increase among motivated offenders when they notice potential targets are carrying a mobile phone. As technology has improved to allow the transmission of photographic images, identification, apprehension, prosecution, and conviction all presumably become even more likely.”
In the '90s, crime decreased in all categories, particularly rape and assault. Past explanations of the crime decrease range from the increase in police force to legalized abortion to rising incarceration rates.
The study notes the first commercially available mobile phone was introduced in 1983, but it didn't become popular until the mid-1990s, the period where crime begins to decline.
There are numerous instances today when our smartphones help us catch a perpetrator. During the London riots, young men assaulted a student who was riding his bike through the crowd. The incident was captured on the smartphone camera of someone watching and the men were prosecuted.
From anecdotal evidence and news reports, it seems smartphones and thieves are most often caught using tracking apps and software which you can install on your phone. One Android app will let you snap photos on your phone from a remote web-based system if it's stolen, possibly capturing an image of the thief. In another instance of smartphone evidence leading to criminal arrests, a criminal using his iPhone as a light accidentally filmed himself burglarizing a home.
Yet having a cellphone doesn't necessarily prevent crime these days. The other side of this issue is that many people are now carrying little (expensive) computers in their bags and pockets which contain all their personal data smartphones have become the new wallets. Reports show that people are more often attacked while they're distracted by their cellphone. Smartphone muggings are now a problem in many big cities.
Officer Gordon Shyy, media relations unit of the San Francisco Police Department, tells E News they don't have any data about whether cellphones deterred crime in the 90s, but said today cellphone muggings are "an epidemic nationwide."
From January 2012 through Nov. 30, 2012, there were approximately 1,732 cellphone related thefts reported in San Francisco out of a total of 3,487 robberies making 50% of all robberies cellphone related.
"Suspects do target individuals that are using their smartphones since they tend to be more inattentive to their surroundings," he says. "There is also a high value for these devices on the 'black market.'"
Shyy says the San Francisco Police Department recommends "bricking" once phones are reported stolen. Bricking is when you deactivate as much of your cellphone as possible with the use of kill-switch apps and software pre-installed on your phone.
"Most importantly we ask people to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings," he says. "If possible do not use your electronic devices while walking in public, waiting in bus shelters or on a public transit bus/train. Suspects look for those individuals and target them in their crimes."
But having a communication device in our pockets that can not only contact someone in our address book like phones of the '90s, but can also reach out to thousands of people in our social networks, might prove to be a crime deterrent if it's used in an effective way.
Police departments are finding useful ways to leverage social media in efforts to lower crime and increase public awareness. They've begun to use Twitter and Facebook to keep locals aware of up-to-the-minute crime and help solve crimes that have already occurred.