The Correlation between COVID-19 and Crime in Europe
Date: 11th April 2020
Reporting as at: 23:00hrs BST, 10th April 2020
Author: Matt Pratten, Regional Analyst
Editor(s): Vincent Fevrier, Senior Analyst
Criminals are taking advantage of how contagious COVID-19 is and are using it as a weapon against police and other victims by spitting/coughing. This will likely place pressure on available police; making it possible there will be reallocations of police resources at the expense of tracking and prosecuting other criminal threats across Europe.
Recent open source reporting has featured the head of the European Union’s Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre (MAOC) Michael O’Sullivan stating that drug traffickers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to ship larger amounts of drugs into Europe. It is based on the perception that police will be focussing their efforts on enforcing lockdown measures.
O’Sullivan’s remarks follow a previous statement from Europol that “organised crime poses the highest and most diverse risk to the EU internal security, and drug trafficking is the most prolific criminal activity (Wells, 2019).” However, the same agency has recently stated it is, “difficult to assess the short-term impact of the current pandemic crisis on drug markets, but it is likely to shift supply-demand dynamics (Europol, 2020).”
While that would appear to be contradictory, Europol has also stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen organised criminal networks spot opportunities for online fraud, property crime, scams and other activities which would indicate a change in their operations and their subsequent tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP).
But what of criminality as a whole? Not just organised crime networks but criminal activity at the tactical level; assaults, murders, theft, gang crime, etc. - how has that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic? This intelligence report aims to provide a brief analysis by looking at criminality 12 months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe; what has been noticed since, analyse what it means and assess what could happen next.
Before COVID-19 in Europe
A brief look at criminality incidents across Europe (including the UK) would indicate – based on open source reporting - the most frequent threats have been arson, burglary/theft, stabbings and assaults. Drug trafficking and criminality incidents such as small arms fire and murders make up a smaller number of incidents logged by Intelligence Fusion analysts; but are nonetheless among the top 10 types of criminality which occur across Europe.
After COVID-19 in Europe
Since COVID-19 began to feature across Europe, there has certainly been an increase in security operations by law enforcement to enforce lockdowns and quarantine measures ordered by their respective governments (shown in Figure 3 below). There have also been incidents of police having to deploy in numbers to mitigate against incidents of looting. The measures have been a source of criticism but as shown by the red major disease/illness incidents, COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus and therefore a threat.
COMMENT: These Security Operations require police to deploy across large areas, often in static roles such as checkpoints or guard duties. Given the need to continue traditional police work against threats shown in Figure 2, law enforcement agencies across Europe are facing a period of high tempo; supporting Michael O’Sullivan’s remarks of drug traffickers exploiting the pandemic to ship larger quantities of drugs (Gallagher, 2020). COMMENT ENDS.
With the above security operations in mind, Figure 4 below depicts all incidents of criminality across Europe since 22nd of January 2020. At this time, there appears to be little change in the amount of drug trafficking being noticed; although it must be pointed out that MAOC would have access to information not available in open source reporting.
However, amongst the top incidents of criminality there appears to have been major changes over the three-month period since the virus outbreak in Europe. Comparing Figure 4 to Figure 2, burglary/theft and assaults have overtaken incidents of arson; and arrests are at a higher rank as well.
COMMENT: The above changes indicate COVID-19 is having an impact on criminal activity in Europe. The prominence of burglary/theft could be attributed to the security operations drawing police away from responding. However, it is unusual this kind of crime appears to be so prominent given that people are being ordered to stay indoors, the increase would appear to be due to more opportunistic thefts rather than criminals breaking into houses. In addition, there is the development of ‘Fake and Enter’ incidents where criminals pose as police or service workers to gain access to vulnerable people in their homes and steal items (Europol, 2020).
A more concerning development has been the assaults; specifically, the growing number of spitting/coughing shown in Figure 5. These incidents have frequently targeted police but are not exclusively limited to them. Due to the fact the virus is highly contagious, spitting/coughing or any kind of contact with saliva/mucus can spread it. The virus has become an effective weapon for criminals to harm police with as it often requires police/victims to self-isolate or go into quarantine. There are also indications that police require additional equipment to mitigate this increasing TTP because of concerns associated with contracting COVID-19 (Ikonen, 2020; Parikiaki, 2020; Hampshire Chronicle, 2020).
This TTP has the potential to severely impact the number of available police. It could rapidly create pressure on available police resources. With this pressure on available personnel, police commanders could face situations where they need to bolster resources against criminal threats at the expense of others. This potential situation would therefore provide significant freedom of action to criminals who normally require significant police resources to counter; such as the activities of drug traffickers and other forms of organised crime. While open source reporting does not appear to support MAOC’s claim at this time, the trend of spitting/coughing on police in assault incidents would show the conditions are being created. COMMENT ENDS.
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At this time, open source reporting does not appear to indicate drug traffickers are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to smuggle large quantities of drugs into Europe as claimed by the head of MAOC. However, it's likely MAOC has classified information from multiple sources and law enforcement agencies to support that claim.
In addition, considering Europol's remarks of changing supply-demand dynamics, it is plausible that open source reporting will reflect what is happening with drug trafficking in the future; supporting MAOC’s statements or even identifying other changing dynamics in the drug trade and thus drug trafficking in Europe.
Although what has been noticed is with the need for law enforcement across Europe to enforce lockdowns, quarantines and other types of security operations to address COVID-19; this is likely stretching law enforcement resources and enabling the increase in other types of crimes such as burglary/theft; with an emphasis on theft.
With the requirements to conduct checkpoints, static guard duties, and break up large gatherings which openly defy lockdown measures, police are less capable of responding or investigating to thefts. As the need for these security operations continues, it is possible such types of criminality will increase.
Of much greater concern is the changes in assaults since the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. Criminals are taking advantage of how contagious the virus is and are using it as a weapon against police and other victims by spitting/coughing. This trend appears to be increasing due to the likely outcome that any officer/victim who is spat/coughed on will need to self-isolate or be quarantined in order to minimise the chances of the virus spreading further.
With this increasing trend, this TTP will likely place immense pressure on available police; making it possible there will be reallocations of police resources at the expense of tracking and prosecuting other criminal threats across Europe. With the possible need to reallocate resources, it is possible that efforts against tracking organised crime activity (drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other more subtle threats) will need to be reduced, making it plausible for organised crime activity to gain significant freedom of action as time progresses.
Europol (2020) Pandemic Profiteering: How Criminals Exploit The COVID-19 Crisis. [online]. Available from: https://www.europol.europa.eu/publications-documents/pandemic-profiteering-how-criminals-exploit-covid-19-crisis (Accessed 9 April 2020).
Gallagher, C. (2020) Coronavirus: Gangs Take Advantage To Import Large Amounts Of Drugs [online]. Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/coronavirus-gangs-take-advantage-to-import-large-amounts-of-drugs-1.4219916 (Accessed 9 April 2020).
Hampshire Chronicle (2020) Numbers Of Police Officers Being Spat During The Coronavirus Outbreak Are On The Rise [online]. Available from: https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18356007.numbers-police-officers-spat-coronavirus-outbreak-rise/ (Accessed 10 April 2020).
Ikonen, C. (2020) Police Demand Spit Guards To Protect Them From Coronavirus Thugs [online]. Available from: https://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/news/18363201.police-demand-spit-guards-protect-coronavirus-thugs/ (Accessed 10 April 2020).
Parikiaki (2020) Fourteen Police Officers In Greece Are In Quarantine After Man Claiming To Have COVID-19 Spits At Them. Parikiaki [online]. Available from: http://www.parikiaki.com/2020/03/fourteen-police-officers-in-greece-are-in-quarantine-after-man-claiming-to-have-covid-19-spits-at-them/ (Accessed 10 April 2020).
Wells, N. (2019) Europol: ‘Unprecedented’ Drug Situation in EU [online]. Available from: https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/11294-europol-unprecedented-drug-situation-in-eu-2 (Accessed 9 April 2020).