With news this week that the past 12 months in the U.S. being the hottest on record plus consecutive days of record breaking heat in the 100s in Chicago, one can’t help but wonder about the extent that scorching heat is having on crime. There may be a link between crime and heat, but other factors could also be at play.
A researcher at Kent State University has found a correlation between rising temperatures and violence. Tracy Siska, the executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, has observed that correlation between rising temperatures and violent crime as well. But warmer temperatures by themselves might not be the cause of the spike in crime.
Laura Brinkman of the University of Chicago Crime Lab has said in explaining the lack of a clear causal relationship between heat and crime that the summer break from school could be more of an influence that the heat itself. Younger people are more prone to engage in crime and not being in school for a majority of the day means that there are more opportunities for young people to congregate and get into trouble. But the summer break might not necessarily be a cause because many of the perpetrators of crime aren’t enrolled in school. Brinkman cautions that school children being in the neighborhoods in the summer could exacerbate tensions.
With the murders in Chicago this year, the spike started in the first five months of the year before the heat started to intensify. According to an NPR report from May, Chicago’s murder rate for the year was still half of what it was twenty years ago and crimes other than murder were down 10 percent.
So it seems that the heat heightens tensions and contributes to a more hostile environment, but it is only one factor in the homicide spike. We do know that in poorer communities, the heat can contribute to illness and even death in the elderly or sick especially if they lack air conditioners. This is where cooling centers come into play — public facilities that people can go to to escape their hot dwellings. We also know that heat can increase the risk of dehydration, which can affect the brain impairing cognitive functioning and elevating anxiety. But at this point, the evidence doesn’t suggest that the extreme heat is causing the crime wave — it’s just making an already tenuous environment more difficult.