Police may be able to predict changes in crime patterns as coronavirus lockdown rules get relaxed.
New research led by the University examined how criminals reacted once movement was restricted in England after the pandemic was declared a global health crisis in March.
As town and cities were effectively shut down, police reported dramatic but not unexpected drops in crime rates nationally.
Researchers have now linked crime rates with population movement. As lockdown restrictions are eased, or re-imposed in cases such as Leicester's, crime patterns may become more predictable.
Knowing how crime patterns are likely to fluctuate may help stop certain crimes returning to pre-lockdown levels.
Professor Graham Farrell of the School of Law led the research. He said: The pandemic has shown us a very different perspective on crime its a natural experiment.
As we come out of lockdown, we expect crime to rise again. By looking at the link between crime and mobility, we are able to provide police with information about the likelihood of certain crimes reoccurring in certain locations. This in turn will enable police to better plan their resources.
It will be some time before lockdown and social distancing ends completely, so in the meantime we need to look at ways to stop crime returning to its previous levels.
Professor Farrell is working with colleagues at Leeds, University College London and three police forces on the 18-month project, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The first part of the study focused on Lancashire just before and after all non-essential travel was announced by the Government on 23 March. In the week following lockdown, overall recorded crime in Lancashire declined by 41%.
We found that different crimes responded to different types of change in movement.
Using data from Googles COVID-19 Consumer Mobility Reports, the team was able to compare population movement with the type of crime being committed.
From their findings, the researchers created a Mobility Elasticity of Crime (MEC) formula. This measures how much mobility the movement of a local population affects crime.
The research focused on particular crimes, all of which showed significant falls during the first week of lockdown: shoplifting (down 62%), theft (52%), domestic abuse (45%), theft from a vehicle (43%), assault (36%), burglary dwelling (25%) and burglary from commercial property (25%).
Professor Farrell explained: We found that different crimes responded to different types of change in movement as government policies were gradually introduced.
Crime began to fall in the days leading to lockdown, but decreased dramatically once the country was ordered to stay as home apart from essential work, shopping, or doing exercise.
A key methodological advantage of the study is that it uses sophisticated statistical models to track crime changes relative to what would have been expected across a five-year period.
This enables us to compensate for long-term change, seasonal and other potential effects. Many media and other reports do not use this method and so are less reliable.
As part of the study, the researchers will also examine changes in crime trends during the pandemic, including the rise of criminals targeting vulnerable people and the sale of fake medicines on the internet.
The paper, Crime and coronavirus: Social distancing, lockdown and the mobility elasticity of crime, has been published in Crime Science.
For interviews, contact University of Leeds press officer Ian Rosser at email@example.com