200 Break-Ins and Still Going

A few weeks ago I posted a scholarly paper from 2011 noting that overall in Europe, crime rates have been increasing over the past few decades, while they've been decreasing in the USA. The authors of the paper put forward some tentative explanations for why this might be, and one of them was that (1) sending people to prison does deter crime, and (2) Europe doesn't imprison enough people. I like the contrarian aspect here: the United States earns a lot of criticism from Europeans for being too harsh on criminals (much of it justified) , but what if Europe is being too lenient?

Which brings us to a recent news story (g) from Hofheim, a burg in the German state of Hessen. A 30-year-old man heard suspicious noises in the basement of his apartment building, went down to investigate, and found a burglar rummaging around there. The burglar had a screwdriver with him. The man punched the burglar a few times and held him until police arrived. The man is going to be charged with assault, but may be able to plead self-defense.

The police note that you are allowed to detain someone in this situation, but not assault them. Of course, they advise residents who find a burglar to dial the police emergency number 110, not to confront them. But 85% of residential burglaries in Germany go unsolved, and burglaries are increasing. And even if the police find the criminal, that hardly guarantees you'll get your property back. So if the guy leaves before the police arrive, you can probably give up hope of finding anything he stole. Under these circumstances, how can you blame someone for wanting to stop the burglar right away? 

Which brings us to the perpetrator in the Hofheim case, a 17-year-old who, according to police, has already compiled a record of over 200 property crimes, including break-ins, bike thefts, and the like. That's not a typo, 200. Like all mainstream German press reports about crime, this one is almost tauntingly vague about details. In particular, we learn nothing more about the burglar or why, in particular, he is still free after committing 200 crimes.

But shouldn't that be the first question anyone asks? Presumably each individual crime was not considered serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence, particularly for a 17-year-old. And apparently German law lacks the facility to take into account a history and pattern of crime when sentencing an offender for each fresh offense. That's my guess, but if you've got more information, I'd be happy to have it.

This is why I don't get as excited about the Bild tabloid as many people I know. I can easily imagine a headline with the blurred-out picture of the young man: '200 Thefts -- And the Court's Can't or Won't Stop Him!' The breathless headline would immediately be condemned by Bild critics as pandering to Joe Sixpack's ignorant lust for revenge. And if the thief is named Ali S. or Mehmet G., xenophobia as well.

But if it is the case that the justice system is not taking property crimes seriously -- and a 15% clearance rate and 17-year-old roaming about with a record of 200 thefts seems to show it isn't -- this is an important policy issue. There should be a debate about this, and police and judges should be confronted and forced to respond about why they are apparently unable to protect citizens' property. If the 'respectable' press won't do this, then only Bild will bother.

Violent Crime is More Common in Europe than the USA

An interesting 2011 paper looks at crime rates since 1970 in the United States and 8 major European countries. The authors, mostly Italian, come to a conclusion that will surprise many people: Europe has become more dangerous than the United States: 

In 1970 the aggregate crime rate in the seven European countries we consider was 63% of the corresponding US figure, but by 2007 it was 85% higher than in the United States. This striking reversal results from a steady increase in the total crime rate in Europe during the last 40 years, and the decline in the US rate after 1990. The reversal of misfortunes is also observed for property and violent crimes.

A few charts:

Crime Rates in the USA and Europe Violent crimes usa europe
An important caveat is that these numbers exclude homicide. The US homicide rate is currently 3-4 times higher than in most European countries. As I've pointed out, this fact is due mostly to two factors: the extremely high rate of black-on-black homicide in the US (52% of all persons arrested in the USA for homicide are black), and of course the wide prevalence of guns in the USA.

Homicide is actually not terribly relevant to public safety. It's much more rare than all other violent crimes, and is overwhelmingly concentrated among certain subgroups. Most homicides occur within an existing relationship, and many others occur among criminal subgroups such as gangs or drug users. The chance of an ordinary European or American being murdered by a stranger in a crime of opportunity is infinitesimally small.

As for general background violence in society, Europe is, statistically, more dangerous. It's interesting to speculate about why this might be. I suspect mass hooligan confrontations between football fans probably plays some rule: Every weekend there are dozens of unruly confrontations between rival football fans which may generate dozens of arrests at once. But still, these have been going on for quite a while.

The authors of the study perform statistical analyses to try to determine why European crime has increased. They do not identify immigration as a significant factor, although they say this is mainly for lack of data. The one factor they do identify as significant is length of incarceration. They argue that Europe's comparatively lenient criminal-sentencing regimes help to explain the crime increase. They find that length of criminal sentence does have an effect on crime rates, and suggest that Europe should increase prison sentences.

At the end of the day, the universal rule for all developed societies holds: crime is concentrated among poor and minority areas, and if you avoid these, your chances of being the victim of a violent crime are minimal. But still, anyone who praises Europe as safer than the USA needs to update their stereotypes.

Why does Sweden Have One of the Highest Sexual Assault Rates in the World?

Every year when comparative crime statistics are updated, there's a head-scratcher: why does the nation of Sweden have one of the the highest rates of sexual assault in the world? The Wikipedia article "Rape in Sweden" consists of little other than a long series of convoluted explanations for this puzzling state of affairs, including expansive legal definitions of sexual assault, awareness campaigns to encourage reporting, and other factors. The problem, of course, is that all Nordic countries have similar cultural and legal environments, but Sweden's rate of sexual assault is 6 or 7 times higher than all neighboring countries. According to a Gatestone Institute report by Swedes Ingrid Carlqvist and Lars Hedegaard:

[I]n 2008, Sweden's neighbor Denmark only had 7.3 rapes per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 53.2 in Sweden?

Danish legislation is not very different from Sweden's, and there is no obvious reason why Danish women should be less inclined to report rape than their Swedish counterparts.

In 2011, 6,509 rapes were reported to the Swedish police -- but only 392 in Denmark. The population of Denmark is about half the size of Sweden's, so even adjusted for size, the discrepancy is significant.

The report cites a statistic from the Swedish National Council on Crime Prevention that 58% of these sexual assaults were by strangers, which is a lot. The report goes on to suggest a different explanation for Sweden's dubious distinction: immigration. This is total immigration and emigration from Sweden for the past 150 years:


After observing that Sweden, like many other European countries, does not keep records on the ethnicity of criminals (how can you be accused of discrimination when you don't keep the numbers that would reveal it?), the Gatestone Report notes that there have been a few -- very few -- academic studies on the prevalence of sexual assaults by immigrant Swedes. The ones that were performed came to rather startling conclusions:

Since 2000, there has only been one research report on immigrant crime. It was done in 2006 by Ann-Christine Hjelm from Karlstads University.

It emerged that in 2002, 85% of those sentenced to at least two years in prison for rape in Svea Hovrätt, a court of appeals, were foreign born or second-generation immigrants.

A 1996 report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention reached the conclusion that immigrants from North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) were 23 times as likely to commit rape as Swedish men. The figures for men from Iraq, Bulgaria and Romania were, respectively, 20, 18 and 18. Men from the rest of Africa were 16 times more prone to commit rape; and men from Iran, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, 10 times as prone as Swedish men.

Now, I don't read Swedish, and can't thus vouch for the accuracy of these statistics. But the previous article from the conservative Gatestone Institute largely checked out, so I am willing to bet they are right.

In any case, I cannot find any detailed refutation of this report, which is packed with statistics, citations and references to original-language sources. It seems to have been met, as is usual with these sorts of reports, with uncomfortable silence. The report cites a telling story of Swedish journalists misleading their readers about who exactly committed a highly-publicized gang-rape:

This month, all major Swedish media reported on a brutal gang rape on board the Finnish Ferry Amorella, running between Stockholm and Åbo in Finland. Big headlines told the readers that the perpetrators were Swedish:

  • "Several Swedish Men Suspected of Rape on the Finland Ferry" (Dagens Nyheter).
  • "Six Swedish Men Raped Woman in Cabin" (Aftonbladet).
  • "Six Swedes Arrested for Rape on Ferry" (Expressen).
  • "Eight Swedes Suspected of Rape on Ferry" (TT – the Swedish News Agency).

On closer inspection, it turned out that seven of the eight suspects were Somalis and one was Iraqi. None of them had Swedish citizenship, so they were not even Swedish in that sense. According to witnesses, the group of men had been scouring the ferry looking for sex. The police released four of them (but they are still suspects) whereas four (all Somalis) remain in custody.

In any event, if it is the case that immigrant males from Arab nations are "23 times as likely" to commit rape as Swedish males once they reach Sweden, wouldn't that perhaps be of relevance, considering that Sweden is currently slated to import tens of thousands more young males from Arab countries? What can Sweden do to reduce the risk of this group of immigrants behaving in a similar fashion? Should immigrants receive special instruction on Swedish laws about sexual assault? I consider these to be important public-safety questions that deserve discussion, not paranoid right-wing fantasies.

And now let's look at it from a left-wing angle. Unless your trust in the Swedish justice system is absolute, you might be tempted to raise another question: is the fact that 85% of all men in prison for serious sexual assault in Sweden are foreigners a true representation of social reality? Or is it possible that they are being singled out or discriminated against? Perhaps Swedish judges are less likely to believe foreigners' explanations for disputed sexual encounters. Perhaps the language barrier or lack of resources plays a role. Perhaps immigrant suspects are getting longer sentences than ethnic Swedes for similar crimes ?

European journalists immediately assume that the over-representation of black Americans in prison signals racism in the justice system. Could something similar be going on in Sweden? Why aren't crusading journalists like Mikeal Blomkvist trying to find this out? Is it because they trust the Swedish justice system to always reach the right conclusions, no matter what? Is it because they are afraid of finding out that the conviction rates actually do reflect reality?

An another question: conservative (but not just conservative) Europeans denounce the mainstream press for actively downplaying immigrant crime, giving citizens an inaccurate picture of what is actually happening in their societies. And looking into the matter, it is clear that European journalists actually do this. It's not just a crazy accusation by right-wing tub-thumpers. If you refer to rape suspects who don't even have Swedish citizenship as "Swedish men", you are lying to your readers. Since this actually happens, the conversation should move on: why does it happen? Perhaps journalists have an explanation for deceiving their readers on this point. Perhaps this explanation might be convincing. But they never even give one. They simply deceive their readers, and then when caught, perhaps make a few hasty edits.

Can anyone point me to an example of a European journalist giving an open, honest, forthright, thoughtful explanation of why many press organs downplay immigrant crime?

Fragen über Fragen, as the German saying goes: Question upon question...

Stolen Mataré and the Weirdness of Art Theft Investigation

From Interpol's most recent flyer showing the most-sought-after works of stolen art, I see that a sculpture by Düsseldorf-based artist Ewald Mataré is on the list:


One of the interesting things about these posters is how little information there is about the stolen artworks. You learn only the name and place of the theft (e.g., Rome -- a 'church') and some descriptions, not even the title of the artwork. Ordinarily when you're spreading information about a crime, you add as many details as possible. Not here. 

I wonder what the strategy behind this is? Interpol obviously knows the details but is choosing not the share them. There must be some reason for this. Perhaps to make it easier for someone to report or return the work of art anonymously? But that's just a guess.

Another interesting wrinkle is the American authorities' method of investigating the biggest art theft in modern history (by value, at least), the 1990 theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Two men posing as cops stole art worth hundreds of millions -- 2 Rembrandts, a Manet, a Degas, a Vermeer. Still unaccounted for. Hints of mob involvement. The US authorities have repeatedly announced they think they know who committed this theft:

In March 2013, the FBI said it believed it knows the identity of the thieves. They believe that the theft was carried out by a criminal organization based in the mid-Atlantic and New England, and that the stolen paintings were moved by a criminal organization through Connecticut and the Philadelphia area in the years following the theft. The FBI believes some of the art may have been sold in Philadelphia in the early 2000s.


On August 11, 2015, FBI special agent Peter Kowenhoven revealed that the two suspects of the theft, previously identified by the FBI but not revealed publicly, are deceased. In an interview with the Associated Press, Kowenhoven declined to identify the individuals.

They have questioned people, but have not arrested or prosecuted anybody. Again, the puzzling ambiguities. Why announce that you think you know who did it without any searches or prosecutions? It's one thing to not have enough evidence, but what purpose is served by announcing that you don't have enough evidence? Just recently it turned out that one of the security guards who were 'overpowered' during the incident was seen buzzing someone into the museum against policy the day before the theft. But he was not arrested.

What tactical purpose does all this caginess serve? Anyone have an idea?

When Can German Police Stop and Question You?

Public service time! In the USA, there is a cottage industry of people spreading the word about what rights citizens have during encounters with police. One of the best videos is from 'Flex Your Rights'. It's just below. The video addresses automobile stops and house searches, but I decided to concentrate on this post on police stopping and questioning people on foot. The video starts just as a a police car pulls up to question a young black male. The cops are investigating illegal graffiti in the area. The lawyer comments on each step of the transaction: 

So what's the situation in Germany? A popular German legal website has a short but informative article here (g). The basic ground rules:

Police must always give you a reason for stopping and questioning you. However, this reason does not alway have to be a concrete suspicion. In certain circumstances police are permitted to stop people as a preventive measure to avoid dangers to public safety (Gefahrenabwehr). These are not intended to assist in investigating a crime, but rather preventing one.

For this justification to apply, it needs to be shown that a danger to public safety exists at a particular location -- for instance, a demonstration in which disturbances are likely to take place, or a well-known drug market where crimes are routine.

Such places are often named specifically in your local state's local-policing law -- for instance Bavaria allows suspicionless public-safety searches where large numbers of prostitutes gather. Also, in special circumstances police can declare entire regions of a city 'danger zones', as Hamburg did in 2014 during left-wing demonstrations.

And what if the police do stop you based on general location? You are required to answer basic questions: your name, your address, your nationality, date and place of birth. The police can ask you to present an identification card (either the German national identity card or a passport), but you are not required to carry this identification around with you everywhere, so if you don't have it with you, that is not against the law.

The police may ask you further questions, such as where you are coming from and where you are going, but you are not required to answer them. A lawyer quoted in the article recommends that you do answer them in a polite but very curt manner, since this is likely to de-escalate the situation.

Note that this applies only when the police stop you without any concrete suspicion you have committed a crime. If they do have such a suspicion, they may be entitled to ask more questions.

The police are also permitted to engage in questioning of random people without individualized suspicion of crime at airports and train stations and trains. The purpose of these stops is usually to try to find illegal immigrants. A German court has found that stopping someone based solely on their appearance or skin color is unconstitutional according to the German Basic Law. (The lawyer in me says they will almost certainly find other ways to justify the search, though.)

Understanding Comparative Crime Rates

Some comments I've been getting here and elsewhere show some people may be unfamiliar with demographic statistics. So here's a short post to put things in perspective:

  1. The Country of Utopia has 1 million inhabitants, split between two population groups: the Martians and the Plutonians.
  2. There are 900,000 Martians and 100,000 Plutonians.
  3. In 2014, there were 27 murders committed by Martians, and 30 murders committed by Plutonians.
  4. So, the raw number of murders committed by each population group is similar. However, raw numbers are meaningless.
  5. The most common measure in criminology, sociology, and demographics is rate per year per 100,000 people. Almost every population-level statistic you see uses this measure.
  6. So, in 2014 there were 3 murders per 100,000 committed by Martians, and 30 murders per 100,000 committed by Plutonians.
  7. This means the murder rate among Plutonians is about 10 times higher than the murder rate among Martians. (This is generally the ratio in the USA when it comes to murder rates among whites and blacks.)
  8. This also means that only .003% of Martians and .03% of Plutonians committed murder in 2014.
  9. In other words, when it comes to murder, the vast majority of both Martians and Plutonians are law-abiding citizens.

So, the statement that 'those Plutonians are all criminals' is an moronic over-generalization. The statement: 'there is a much higher rate of murder among Plutonians' is accurate.

Now if only .03% of Plutonians are murderers, why is it that some Plutonian neighborhoods may be unsafe to visit? That's because the murder rate within the Plutonian population is not evenly distributed. 50% of Plutonians are female, and 50% of Plutonian males are under 10 or over 45. These groups present very low risk of violent crime. For simplicity's sake we'll leave out socio-economic status (poorer people universally have higher crime rates) and focus only on age. 90.5% of all homicides are committed by males, and the vast majority are committed by young males. So to continue with our example:

  1. Let's say that 24 of the 30 homicides were committed by Plutonian men between 10 and 45 years of age: that is, 25,000 people.
  2. That means the murder rate among young Plutonian males is 96 per 100,000. That is 3.2 times higher than the general murder rate for all Plutonians, and 32 times higher than the rate among all Martians.
  3. Let's assume the same effect holds for Martians (not 100% true but close): the murder rate for young Martian males is 3.2 times the overall base rate of 3, or 9.6 per 100,000.

So this means that all things considered, if you want to minimize your risk of being the victim of a homicide, you should probably avoid neighborhoods with large concentrations of young Plutonian males, since they have the highest homicide rate in Utopia. Nevertheless, of course, even in this sub-group, the vast majority of young Plutonians are law-abiding, so your risk of being killed is still very low (especially since these rates are for an entire year and you'll just be there a day). However, assuming that the rates for other crimes show similar characteristics for the rate of homicide (again, this is generally true, but lots of caveats apply), your risk of being the victim of some crime in a high-young-male-Plutonian neighborhood may well be non-trivial.

I hope that clarifies things.

84% of People Killed by US Police This Year Were Armed

Blog_police_killings_washington_postBoth the Washington Post and the Guardian have been trying to create national databases of the number of people killed by police in the USA, since the federal government doesn't do this. The Guardian reporters did a Reddit AMA about their series here. The graphic was the result of number crunching done by Bob Somerby and graph by Kevin Drum, who comments:

[A]bout 16 percent of the victims weren't carrying a deadly weapon at the time they were killed. That breaks down like this:

  • 26 blacks out of 132, or about 20 percent.
  • 35 whites out of 253, or about 14 percent.
  • 17 Hispanics out of 83, or about 20 percent.

These percentages are roughly similar across races, but don't account for total population. When you account for that, unarmed blacks are killed at about 4x the rate of whites and 2x the rate of Hispanics.

Blacks are over-represented given their share of the population, but it's impossible to say whether that's true given their much higher share of violent crime, as I've pointed out recently. Obviously each death of an person at the hands of police warrants concern, investigation, and perhaps changes in policy, especially if they're unarmed. But is there a massive epidemic of unarmed black people being gunned down by police in America? No. 

China Rethinking Capital Punishment?

The New York Times notes China's softening stance on the death penalty: 

Last month, China’s Supreme People’s Court overturned the death sentence of a woman who brutally killed and dismembered her husband. The landmark decision to send the high-profile case back to a provincial court was yet another sign that the country’s embrace of the death penalty is loosening.

China is believed to execute more people each year than the rest of the world combined, and 43-year-old Li Yan initially seemed a likely candidate for death row. In 2010, she beat her husband to death with an air gun, chopped him into pieces and boiled his body parts. But police photos and a medical report backed up Ms. Li’s claims that her husband had abused her — stubbing out cigarettes on her body, banging her head against the wall and threatening her with the air gun. The Supreme Court determined, rightly, that these circumstances justified a retrial.

China is putting the brakes on the death penalty. According to Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, between 2007 and 2011 the annual number of executions in China fell by half. Many violent offenders are now given so-called suspended death sentences, which are invariably downgraded later to life in prison. Such restraint has drawn broad public support.


Interviews conducted by criminologists suggest that international criticism has had an impact as well. In 1977, a mere 16 countries had abolished the death penalty; today 140 countries — over two-thirds of the world’s nations — have done so in law or practice. Chinese legal scholars and judges are fully aware of their country’s role as the outlier.

In 2006 a group of reform-minded justices began formally advocating moderation in punishment. Led by Xiao Yang, then the Supreme People’s Court chief justice, they pushed the maxim “kill fewer, kill cautiously.” The following year, the high court began reviewing all capital cases, creating a strong disincentive for lower courts to hand out death sentences. The substitution in many cases of suspended death sentences — which in practice means offenders spend about 25 years in prison — was the result.

The shift met resistance from hard-liners who warned of a spike in crime. But pandemonium did not ensue. Some criminologists now argue that the harsh campaigns of the past in fact sparked violent crime, by making criminals reluctant to leave witnesses behind.

Readers! Your clairvoyant blog host, Me, totally predicted this in my 2010 book (pp. 234-235):

[China]  has one unified national penal code (adopted in 1979 and modified many times since), and a political structure which insulates ruling elites from popular opinion. Were China’s ruling elites to be convinced that abolition was a desirable step, they would be able to implement it without fearing a formal political backlash. Even if Chinese leaders were not swayed by humanitarian concerns, there is a pragmatic case for the move: abolition of capital punishment by China would generate an avalanche of favorable coverage from the international media, and would be a potent weapon against critics of China’s human rights policies. In par- ticular, China could point to the continued use of capital punishment by the United States to parry American denunciations. Given the sensitivity of Chinese officialdom to critiques of its human rights policies, it would seem that abolishing capital punishment would be a low-cost way to project a more sympathetic image on the world stage.

You can buy this masterpiece by clicking on the box to the right. Whatever the price in your local currency, it's a bargain at twice that price!

The Savagery of U.S. Criminal Justice, Part II

Another bizarre threat served up by the United States federal criminal-justice system:

The shuttered Hump restaurant in Santa Monica and two of its sushi chefs have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges including selling sei whale meat, an announcement from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles says.

Typhoon Restaurant Inc., the parent company of the Hump, and Kiyoshiro Yamamoto and Susumu Ueda were named in the nine-count indictment. Other charges include conspiracy to import and sell meat from the endangered sei whale and lying to federal investigators. 

The Hump closed in 2010 after an associate producer of the documentary "The Cove," which investigated the killing of dolphins in Japan, orchestrated a video sting. The Times reported that two participating activists asked if they could order whale meat as part of an omakase meal and a waitress served eight pieces, according to a federal affidavit. DNA tests confirmed the meat came from a sei whale, which is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It's illegal to sell any kind of whale meat in the U.S.

If convicted, Yamamoto faces up to 67 years in prison, and Ueda faces a maximum 10-year term. Typhoon would face fines totaling $1.2 million.

Yes, you read that right: 67 years for selling whale meat, conspiracy to sell whale meat (which, in the wonderful world of American criminal justice, is actually a separate crime), and lying to federal investigators. So, a chef sells endangered whale meat once to undercover investigators, and now faces 67 years in prison.

To add some context, the chance of this fellow actually getting a 67-year-sentence is low. A federal judge will do the sentencing, and has discretion to impose a much lower sentence than the theoretical maximum. What's happening here is that prosecutors have stacked up as many separate charges as possible to terrorize this man into cutting a deal. If you were faced with this tactic, you would think as follows: There's probably a 90% chance I'll get a sentence of something like 5 years, a 9 percent chance I'll get no prison time, and a 1% chance of getting a sentence of 50+ years (this just an illustration, federal sentencing law is actually more complex than this).

What would you do to avoid even a slight possibility that the rest of your life will be utterly destroyed? A lot. You would take a deal for, say, 8 years. At least then you can be certain of the outcome. If you hadn't been threatened with 67 years in prison, you might have risked a trial, or at least insisted on a deal for 2 or 3 years in prison. But the prosecution can bludgeon you into throwing several extra years of your life away by threatening you with an insanely long sentence that is, at least, theoretically permissible.

And to think that Americans pride themselves on being rugged individualists with a distrust of government power.