Analysis: Crime data shows spike in holiday vandalism
They don’t call it trick or treat for nothing.
While Halloween conjures thoughts of costumed kids begging for candy, the holiday also can turn into a night of rotten eggs and smashed pumpkins — or worse.
More vandalism occurs on Oct. 31 than any other time except for New Year’s Day, according to a GateHouse Media data analysis of the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System.
From 2009 to 2018, pranksters across the country committed some 19,900 vandalism offenses on Halloween compared with 21,000 offenses during the same time frame on New Year’s Day, according to the data, which is reported to the FBI by more than 4,000 law-enforcement agencies nationwide.
Jessica Collingsworth knows about the problem firsthand. The 34-year-old from Apple Valley, California, enjoys throwing a big Halloween party every year. Two years ago, she awoke the next morning to find graffiti on a brick fence in front of her house.
Collingsworth didn’t let that kill the annual celebration. Last year she hosted a tropical-themed night for around 400 people, and this year she purchased a 17-foot-long airplane fuselage that she will use to create the illusion of a plane crash at her house.
“Actually, I feel that in our neighborhood Halloween is a pretty positive experience,” she said.
Yet Collingsworth does one thing differently now: She waits until the day of the party to put up her decorations, so that she doesn’t tempt vandals.
It’s a lesson Cheryl Winter learned earlier this month when someone destroyed a set of large inflatable ghosts and pumpkins outside her house in Kaysville, Utah.
It was one of six vandalism incidents reported in the city since Oct. 1, but the only one so far tied to Halloween, said Kaysville police spokeswoman Alexis Benson.
Winter was “really upset” by the incident, Benson said, because the decorations held sentimental value to her special needs son.
“It appears that someone may have tackled those decorations, which caused them to pop. So they’re unable to use them anymore,” Benson said. “It’s really unfortunate that someone felt the need to do that to their belongings.”
Possible data error?
Because vandalism incidents spike on the first day of every month in the FBI data, some experts believe they may reflect an entry error caused when a reporting agency doesn’t provide an exact date.
“My hunch is that if you don’t know the date, the first will be put in by default,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston.
That means New Year’s Day incidents could be lower than the FBI data shows, making Halloween the busiest day of the year for vandals.
By contrast, the day with the fewest reported vandalism incidents: Christmas. It racked up 10,013 reports during the same 10-year time period, about half the total on Halloween.
That’s no surprise to Bryanna Fox, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, who attributed that holiday’s low numbers to “the protective factor of being with family members.”
Halloween, on the other hand, is an occasion when kids spend time with friends and often venture out unattended. “Therefore,” Fox said, “they can vandalize places more easily.”
Insurance companies also report more homeowner claims during the Halloween season.
Travelers, the third-largest U.S. personal insurer, reported 17% more homeowner claims on Halloween in 2018 than on an average day.
On Nov. 1, the number of claims was 44% higher.
For vandalism-related claims, Travelers saw an increase of nearly 55% during the three-day period between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.
Angi Orbann, vice president of property for personal insurance at Travelers, suggests one way to help keep property safe is to “manage visibility” with things like video doorbells, cameras and lights as “there are a lot more people out on Halloween.”
The trick has been a part of Halloween a lot longer than the treat.
While there were many different roots to trick or treating, by the time of the Great Depression the tradition of kids playing pranks threatened to get out of hand, with smashed windows and buildings set on fire. Giving away candy or other treats was seen as a way to stop troublemakers from “wrecking the town,” said John-Peter Trask, course director of “Historical Archetypes and Mythology” at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.
Sugar rationing during the war years slowed the spread of the tradition, but the idea of treating kids took off with the postwar baby boom and the move by many Americans to the suburbs. “That, eventually, turns into trick or treating,” Trask said.
The tricks never really went away, though, and nuisance activities like tossing toilet paper into trees or throwing eggs at cars could easily spiral into malicious behaviors, said Fox, the professor from Boston.
While analyzing crimes reported in his city from 2006 to 2009, Fox found that in addition to acts of vandalism, serious violent crime including homicide and robbery was also up, by about 50%, over any other date.
“Wreaking havoc and being mischievous on Halloween is part of the spirit, unfortunately,” he said.
The day might be a lot different if there were more Halloween celebrators like Thom Loebach.
For nearly 30 years, the 70-year-old from Machesney Park, Illinois, has been dressing as Santa Claus for Halloween. While children are often surprised to see him on the last day of October, he has a ready response when they ask him about it.
“I’ll say, ‘I’m just making sure you guys are not naughty today.’”