In the 1920 Presidential Election, candidate Warren Harding promulgated a message of recovery from the trifecta of crises of World War I, the First Red Scare, and the Spanish Flu. He summarized this sentiment with the slogan, “A Return to Normalcy.” Now, a century later, and after our own cluster of crises including riots, violence, and a pandemic of our own, President Joe Biden invoked that same slogan, hoping to spur Americans toward recovery. Alas, the only thing I drew from my research on this point was the realization that mixing Presidents Harding and Biden resulted in a startling resemblance to Judge Smails from Caddyshack.
Nonetheless, that return to normalcy is trudging toward us. As cases decline and vaccinations increase, we are seeing restrictions fall away and people slowly coming back to pre-pandemic activities. In my day job, I consult on investigations and security issues around the world. I’ve been actively involved in advising on how to return to the office safely. While not strictly a security issue, the types of processes and technology the security world uses has been pressed into COVID service. We can monitor social distancing and mask-wearing with a video surveillance system. We can use a badge access control system for contact tracing. And in a broad sense, security practitioners are fundamentally risk management experts, and can help balance the rapidly changing landscape.
Of course, a major part of the return to work is the transition away from working from home and resuming a commute. One challenge to that is how comfortable many people have become working from home. It was a welcome benefit to have more time for work or personal life when one didn’t have to drive in, hop on a train or – let’s be honest – wear pants every day.
On a more serious note, another challenge to returning to work is a concern about crime, especially in major cities. We’ve seen reports of dramatic spikes in crime, and instances of racially and/or ethnically motivated assaults. Helping to sort through and analyze these types of reports, separating rumor from reality, and assessing for potential impact is at the heart of what I do. So I thought I would share the some the recent analysis I’ve done with you here.
First of all, and perhaps counter to what we’ve heard, crime dropped around the world during the lockdown. It’s still a bit too soon for much true scholarly analysis, but at least one academic paper here traces the demonstrable reduction.
That said, we are seeing spikes in violent crime in urban areas. While the afore-mentioned lack of true study renders certainty elusive, most analysts theorize that a multitude of factors are contributing to this spike. Simmering tensions, civil disturbances, changes to police practices and resources, and changes in bail and incarceration practices have all had at least some measurable effect on recent criminal activity.
On top of that, there is another factor I believe is impacting the perception of these crimes, and that is the ratio of criminal acts to the population. Let me explain what I mean in the context of someone returning to work in an office for the first time in over a year. Imagine commuting into Manhattan in January 2020. Let’s say I got off an LIRR train at Penn Station. I would be one of tens of thousands of commuters trudging through the corridors. Naturally, I would see a usual number of panhandlers, vagrants, and people experiencing homelessness. Some might be aggressive, some may be actively committing public nuisance crimes such as noise violations or public urination. But because I’m in the safety of my pack of 10,000 commuters, I don’t pay those crimes any attention.
But now if I take that same train in June 2021, The number of fellow commuters has drastically fallen. Now, though it may be the exact same number of criminal actions, the ratio is way off, and it feels like a lot more. I’m now surrounded by crime, instead of my tribe having the numerical advantage. I believe this phenomenon is impacting trains, subways, and other forms of commuting. The most pernicious thing about this is the Catch-22 it creates: I won’t feel safe unless more people start taking the train; but more people are less likely to take the train if they don’t feel safe.
For what it’s worth, when I was advising a Fortune 200 company on how to re-open their Manhattan headquarters, we took a survey of all the people who had volunteered to return to the office. We mapped their reported commuting methods, and I scoured all the intel sources I could get my hands on to get a real-time snapshot of the local conditions. The day before the pilot was to begin, I walked the route for every bus stop, train station, and subway line those volunteers would use. I found nothing that would give me concern. Sure, there were a couple of trouble spots. But this was New York, and these volunteers were New Yorkers… they would know how to handle a couple of trouble spots.
One thing I’ve learned in my career is that people have different levels of risk tolerance. As we contemplate going back to our lives, we all will have to set the fear, rumors, and noise aside and take a grounded look at the landscape before us, and make the choices best for ourselves and our families. I wish you a happy, healthy, and above all safe return to normalcy!