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Data refutes crime, heat relationship

July 27, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

It's been repeated thousands of times by citizens, merchants, even police officers: When the weather heats up, so does crime.

But is it true?

"Nothing stands out there," Hagerstown City Police Chief Dale J. Jones said. "There's no specific trend I can see in the local statistics."

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Only once since 1995 has a summer month - June, July or August - been among the top five months for violent crime over that period, according to department statistics. That was August 1996, when there were 32 violent crimes.

The month with the most violent crimes - including homicides, robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults - was last October.

Nor does there appear to be any correlation between temperature and homicides. Jones noted that most of the seven homicides in 1994 happened in winter, not summer.

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Last year's four homicides occurred in March, July, August and November.

"They're essentially spread throughout the year," he said.

That does not mean that the weather has no effect on the police department. Jones said the number of calls to the department rises during the summer months each year, although not necessarily as a result of violent crime.

"Sometimes there's more activity during the summer," he said. "If you get people out in the street later at night, there may be more activity and you hear more in terms of noise complaints."

Several law enforcement officials also pointed to a seeming rise in certain kinds of crimes.

Lt. Rick Swartwood of the Martinsburg (W.Va.) Police Department said he does not think weather affects crimes like robberies and sexual assaults because they tend to be premeditated.

He said, however, that more reports of spontaneous crimes seem to come in when the weather turns hot.

"The increase we usually see is more domestic violence-type crimes and alcohol offenses," he said.

Swartwood speculated the more important factor is that people drink more, which tends to lead to other kinds of crimes.

"Usually, in hot weather, it does seem to us that people consume more alcohol," he said.

Although he did not have statistics available, Waynesboro (Pa.) Police Chief Glenn R. Phenicie said it appears domestic violence increases during the summer.

"It's hot and people get a little irritable quickly, it seems," he said.

Phenicie urged people to cool off, physically and emotionally, when tempers flare. When people feel anger coming on, they should seek air conditioning or a swimming pool, or simply walk away, he said.

"It's kind of hard to tell people how to do that if they can't afford (air conditioning)," he said. "If it's 90 degrees out, you might not feel like taking a walk. That might make it worse."

Statistical information from Pennsylvania and West Virginia is somewhat inconclusive.

In West Virginia, for instance, in 10 of the 12 summer months from 1993 to 1996, the number of violent crimes was higher than the monthly average.

In 1995, violent crime in Pennsylvania spiked well above the monthly average, recording a high of 4,982 in June of that year and a low of 3,331 crimes in December.

In 1996, though, the high-water mark came in October, when 4,772 crimes occurred. The figure for July was below the monthly average for the year.

Looking at all offenses in the Crime Index, which also includes infractions like larceny-theft, burglary and car theft, a more consistent pattern emerges.

In each of the last three years for which statistics are available, general crime in Pennsylvania has tended to increase in the summer months and decrease during the winter and late fall.

But if it is not clear that the heat causes crime, where does the idea come from?

G. Thomas Gitchoff, a criminal justice and psychiatry professor at San Diego State University, said he remembers reading about the crime-heat link in textbooks when he was in graduate school 35 years ago.

He said it was one of theories offered to explain why the Southeast led the nation in violent crime.

"They say the same thing about the full moon," he said.

The same is true of cold weather. Phenicie said winter can test people's patience. He recalled riding around with the National Guard in Humvees during the blizzard in 1996 because police cruisers were stranded.

"We had a domestic assault in the middle of all that," Phenicie said. "I think it was just nerves. They were all boxed up."

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