Crime Drops in Chicago When Big Games Are on TV, Study Says

By Mark Konkol on June 2, 2014 7:22am | Updated on June 2, 2014 8:29am

 A Chicago police officer stands in a sea of ticker tape after the White Sox World Series parade on Oct. 28, 2005.
A Chicago police officer stands in a sea of ticker tape after the White Sox World Series parade on Oct. 28, 2005.
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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

CHICAGO — Chicagoans love watching sports.

In this city of sports bars — segregated by big league baseball and college sports allegiances — fans flock to pubs with the biggest TVs to cheer for their favorite teams separately and come together to cheer for the Bears, Bulls and Hawks.

And now there's all the more reason to love watching the big game on your favorite big screen: It reduces crime.

Researchers Ryan Copus and Hannah Laquer found that crime in Chicago — violent crime, drug arrests and property crime — all took a nosedive when there was a game on TV between 2001 and 2013.

The study, titled "Entertainment as Crime Prevention: Evidence from Chicago Sports Games," was inspired by retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who, during the 2011 NFL lockout issued this challenge: "Do this research. ... If we don't have a season, watch how much evil, which we call crime, watch how much crime picks up if you take away our game ... [People have] nothing else to do."

Lewis was mocked by social scientists, police and sports columnists who said there was no data to support the linebacker's hypothesis that sports games on TV make Americans safer.

But Copus and Laquer, doctoral candidates at the University of California Berkeley Law School, say their research shows Lewis was on to something.

"We think our paper is pretty good evidence that Ray Lewis was right. Lewis claimed that an NFL lockout would lead to higher crime, and we find large decreases in crime during games, and no evidence of short-term increases before or after the game," Copus said.

The study compared city by-the-minute crime stats during televised NFL, NBA and MLB games and non-game days. (They didn't include Blackhawks games, but we'll get to that later.)

"In general, we find substantial declines during games across crime types — property, violent, drug and other — with the largest reductions for drug crime," Copus said.

The main reason: both criminals and police love sports to distraction.

"Potential offenders are distracted by the game," Copus said.

"We don't think other explanations can account for that. So, for example, the fact that potential victims are inside watching the game could explain why we don't see as much violent crime, but we don't think it's a very good explanation for the reductions in property crime."

And when it comes to game-time declines in drug arrests, Copus said the research suggests that police are willing to wait until after the game to make arrests.

"Police officers might be more lax on a big game day, but it's hard to rigorously test the theory," Copus said. "We do see particularly large reductions in drug crime that we think are probably in part due to police officers taking it a little easy on drug crimes during games."

The researchers didn't pick Chicago as its test case due to our city's reputation for shootings that earned the nickname "Chiraq."

"We ended up using data from Chicago mostly because [police] make their by-the-minute criminal incident reports publicly available. Most cities don't," Copus said. "Plus, Chicago is a city known for caring about its sports teams."

And the sports team Chicagoans collectively care about the most — Da Bears — had the biggest positive effect on crime, especially on Monday Night Football, the study found.

When the Bears won Monday night games, total crime citywide dropped 17 percent. That's second only to the Super Bowl, which posted a 26 percent decrease in total crime, including a 63 percent dip in drug arrests, according to the analysis.

The researchers say their findings are something for NFL brass to consider while deciding whether to expand the season and play more weeknight games.

"If other weeknight games generate crime reductions similar to Monday night games … additional game nights may have social benefits," the study says.

Crime dipped by 7 percent during White Sox and Cubs playoff games. And the White Sox World Series games in 2005 reduced crime by 2 percent, the analysis showed.

During the NBA Finals and Sunday Bears games, overall crime dropped 3 percent, the study shows.

Copus and Laquer, like a lot of people, didn't consider the positive effects of televised Blackhawks games because, well, until recently not a lot of people were watching them.

"TV ratings for hockey are lower than the other sports we studied, so we had doubts about whether enough potential offenders watch it to generate detectable crime savings," Copus said.

Now that the Hawks have more regular season games on TV, two more Stanley Cup championships under their belt and a growing fan bandwagon, it might be time to see how many would-be criminals (and cops) get distracted enough to take the evening off when a big Hawks game's on TV.

"This is probably something worth looking into," Copus said. "We hope to do that soon."

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