Snow's effect on crime can be hard to predict

While many Marylanders spent the snowy weekend wondering how they would dig out or if they'd have school or work come Monday, Julie Drake, a Baltimore prosecutor who works on family violence cases, was braced for the worst.

"At the start of the snowstorm, that's the first thing I thought about," she said. "When you have people stuck in a house together, tempers fray, conflicts come out, and it's very difficult for people to leave and blow off steam."

But it seems the weather's effect on crime can be as tricky to predict as the forecast itself. Statistics show that city police received fewer domestic-related calls over the weekend (125) than either of the previous two weekends (151 Jan. 29-31 and 172 Jan. 22-24), according to Lt. Vernell Shaheed of the family crimes unit.

Weather is often offered as an explanation for ebbs and flows in crime, and various academic studies have explored correlations between crime and factors such as wind, sunshine, barometric pressure and humidity. Many offer conflicting theories, but few law enforcement officials believe the weather slows down criminals for long.

"When the flakes come out of the sky, we get a reprieve," said Detective Donny Moses, a police spokesman and former narcotics investigator. "It's almost like the criminals are in shock. But people adapt, and the crime pretty much resumes as if the weather never changed."

A review of the department's weekly Comstat data from recent years shows that generally, most types of crime rose in the warmer months and dipped along with the temperature. The most pronounced appeared to be aggravated assaults.

But there's less variation for the most serious crime of homicide, and police say weather events can sometimes give rise to other crimes of opportunity.

Despite the historic snow, two people were killed over the weekend. A 24-year-old man was stabbed and killed when going to pick up his daughter from his ex-girlfriend's Southwest Baltimore residence, just after the snow had subsided. On Sunday afternoon, with most neighborhoods digging out, a 38-year-old man was shot to death in a West Baltimore alley.

Gun-toting men in high-crime neighborhoods say it's easier to conceal a weapon in bulky winter jackets, and they know police are less likely to stop them and slower to arrive at a crime scene.

Officers broke up a fight Friday night near The Block between two men who were drunk and arguing, telling them to go their separate ways. They did - only to reunite around the corner on Commerce Street, leading to an altercation.

"There were only two bars open and 10 people downtown, and we had a stabbing," said Maj. Dennis Smith, commander of the Central District. "I was dumbfounded."

But such incidents were rare, Smith said, and though Shaheed's numbers might show that domestic incidents were down, there might have been a relative increase as those calls represented the bulk of crimes handled by patrol officers.

Smith, whose district includes downtown and areas such as Bolton Hill and Upton, said the majority of the calls over the weekend were "assaults inside of homes, domestic arguments, domestic fights."

"We weren't getting a lot of robbery calls or calls for drugs on corners," he said.

Sgt. Bob Jagoe, who works with the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, said police handled a sizable number of stolen vehicle reports, almost entirely sport-utility vehicles and vehicles with four-wheel drive. The common thread was that drivers left their cars running while ducking back into the house or into a convenience store.

"I think people sometimes think when it snows, everybody's in it together, we're all in this mess, and who would think of committing a crime on a beautiful snowy day?" Jagoe said. "But it only takes a minute, and a running car is a perfect way to make a quick getaway."

Ellen G. Cohn, a researcher at Florida International University, examined 40 years of data linking climate and crime and found that extremely unpleasant weather - torrential rain, hurricane winds or overwhelming heat - acts as a "negative stimulation," but property crime was not significantly affected by changes in weather.

"Research suggests a fight-or-flee theory, and when the conditions become unpleasant criminals flee," Cohn, who could not be reached for comment Monday, told the Los Angeles Times in 2005.

Two studies, published in 1986 and 1987, found that the monthly number of crisis calls received by women's shelters and family trouble calls to police had statistically significant ties to changes in seasons, with peaks in hot summer months and lows in the winter.

In Baltimore, the monthly homicide total does not vary widely based on temperature. The most deadly months over the past five years have been June, May and July, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun. But the fourth-highest is January, followed by December.

The past weekend offered a possible case study in not only the correlation between weather and crime but another variable that was once linked to violence: football.

In 1993, feminist activists orchestrated a national campaign labeling Super Bowl Sunday a "day of dread," saying violence against women soared on the day of the big game and urging women not to be alone with men as they watched football. The Washington Post later debunked that notion, interviewing researchers who said their work had been taken out of context or exaggerated.