Civil Liberties

The iPhone Crime Wave

What Gotham's gobbled Apples reveal about the nation's falling crime rates


During the last 20 years, law enforcement officials, criminologists, journalists, and other cultural observers have attempted to solve the mystery of the nation's declining crime rates. Was the post-1990 drop in murders and other serious crimes due to new police tactics that concentrated resources in unsafe neighborhoods? Maybe. Was it longer prison sentences? The waning crack trade? Increased availability of abortions? Maybe, possibly, perhaps.

Bucking the trend, New York City in 2012 experienced its first overall increase in major crimes in 20 years. But this time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have decisively fingered the culprit: It was Steve Jobs. Or, rather, the devices Apple produced under his watch.

According to New York Police Department (NYPD) statistics, there were 3,484 more major crimes in 2012 than there were in 2011. (These numbers compare the first 51 weeks of each year.) The rise in the total number of Apple-related thefts —which occurred during burglaries, robberies, and grand larcenies —exceeded that number. (The NYPD keeps track of seven categories of crime that it deems "major." They are murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. It keeps track of three categories of crime that it deems "minor." They are petit larceny, misdemeanor assault, and misdemeanor sex crimes.)

 "If you took out thefts of Apple products—not Galaxies, Samsungs—just Apple products, our total [major] crime rate would be lower than it was last year," Bloomberg told the New York Post

Presumably New York City's criminals are snapping up iPods, iPhones, and iPads not because they prefer Apple's battery life management over that of its competitors but because the resale market for Apple devices is robust and predictable. According to The Wall Street Journal, high tariffs in countries like Brazil can drive up the price of a new entry-level iPhone 4s to $1,000, so used ones go for as much as $400 there. Here in the U.S., secondhand dealers buying in bulk on Craigs­list pay as much as $500 for a used iPhone 5. Demand is strong. Resale prices are high. There are millions of iPhones out there, but unlike so many other products in our age of plenty, they have not yet become too abundant to steal. 

With other brands, theft is an iffier proposition. That snatchable seven-inch non-Apple tablet could have an initial retail price anywhere between $99 and $499, and there may not be much of a secondhand market. This magnifies crime's inherent risks: No one wants to be the chump who earns a stretch in the Big House for strong-arming some cheapskate out of what upon closer inspection turns out to be a Nook Simple Touch. 

Can New York City's Apple- picking epidemic tell us something about crime in general? Most theories about America's long-term crime trends share a common characteristic: They attribute the drop to some factor that has depleted the nation's supply of criminals. One theory, for example, holds that because individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 tend to commit crimes at higher rates than people in other age groups, crime started dropping when the country's median age began to rise, thus leaving fewer young people per capita to commit crimes. Another theory stresses the correlation between crime and high levels of lead in the bloodstream. When leaded gas was banned, this theory suggests, childhood exposure to high lead emissions began to drop as well, which eventually led to fewer adults with the sort of neurological damage that is associated with criminal behavior. 

None of the major crime hypotheses pays much attention to the ways in which the material landscape of America has changed. Yet such changes obviously have at least some impact on crime. 

Car theft wasn't a problem until cars were invented. Apple theft barely existed in New York City a decade ago; according to Ray Kelly, the police department recorded just 86 Apple-related crimes in all of 2002. Since then, the company has made its products so portable they're nearly ubiquitous in public, thus prompting New York City's criminals to thug different. (On a more positive note, subway thefts involving boomboxes, Sony Walkmen, and evening editions of the New York Post are doubtlessly on the wane.)

But if a new, highly desirable product can lead to a dramatic increase in crime, perhaps the opposite is true as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "there was a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States from 1990 through 2010," exactly the same time in which the country began to experience a dramatic decrease in crime rates. Like the drop in crime, the rise in obesity has provoked many hypotheses but few definitive answers. One credible notion, however, is that waistlines have grown out of increasing affluence and abundance. Food got cheaper and far more accessible. Entertainment options and labor-saving devices proliferated. Life got easier, more convenient, and in many ways, far more pleasurable—so much so that we tend to opt for seconds of everything (more pizza, more video games, more social networking) as long as it doesn't require much exertion. 

Think about the ways life has changed since 1990, and specifically about the ways these changes affect young men, who historically have been the cohort most likely to commit crimes. TV sports programming has expanded exponentially. Video games have become far more plentiful and immersive. Hip-hop evolved into a multibillion-dollar lifestyle industry encompassing music, fashion, and more. The Internet provided free universal porn. The rise of big-box retailers like Walmart and Target made a wide range of goods increasingly affordable. 

Given that millions of well- paying jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors have been lost during the last 20 years, and that this loss has its greatest impact on the prospects of young men, these consolations may seem meager. Yet look at how young men are expressing their discontent. Murder rates have dropped. Rape rates have dropped. Property crimes have dropped.

Maybe this is all because of lower lead levels. Or maybe, in the same way that technologically driven abundance has made us fatter, it has also made us more content, giving us more opportunities for self-expression, more opportunities to develop meaningful social connections, and more material goods that are so easily obtainable that they blunt the economic imperatives of crime.

Consider what's happening in New York City with all those non-Apple devices. Physically, they're no harder to steal than Apples, and there are plenty of them to be found on New York subways. Yet because many non-Apple devices are so inexpensive, they are relatively easy to replace (or perhaps easy to live without), undermining the gadgets' value from the thief's perspective. So even as these items proliferate, the rate at which they get stolen is actually dropping.

Apple, meanwhile, is an ironic outlier. The creative tools with which it equipped the world's designers, developers, and media producers played a crucial role in enabling our new world of super-affordable material wealth. Yet despite the increasing ubiquity of iPhones and iPads, worldwide demand for these products remains so strong that they're still not universally accessible. As a result, they're still worth stealing.

Of course, if theft of Apple devices increases so much that their air of exclusivity begins to seem like a design flaw, a solution is readily at hand. By flooding the market with bargain-bin iPhone knock-offs, the company could instantly protect its marquee products in ways that anti-theft apps like "Find My iPhone" would be hard-pressed to match. In the end, abundance is the most powerful form of security.