Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The death of pickpocketing in America

Marcus Felson, a criminologist at Texas State University who has spent decades studying low-level crime, calls pickpocketing a "lost art." Last year, a New York City subway detective told the Daily News that the only pickpockets left working the trains anymore were middle-aged or older, and even those are few and far between. ...

In a 2001 story, the New York Times reported that there were 23,068 reported pickpocketing incidents in the city in 1990, amounting to nearly $10 million in losses. Five years later, the number of reported incidents had fallen by half, and by the turn of the millennium, there were less than 5,000. Today, the NYPD doesn't even maintain individual numbers on pickpocketing. ...

Experts offer a few explanations for the gradual disappearance of pickpockets in the United States. Crime nationwide—from pickpocketing to homicide—has been dropping since the mid-1990s. People carry less cash today, and thanks to enhanced security features, it's harder for thieves to use stolen credit or debit cards than it was in the past. And perhaps most important, the centuries-old apprenticeship system underpinning organized pickpocketing has been disrupted. Pickpocketing has always perpetuated itself by having older hooks—nicknamed "Fagins," after the crime boss in Oliver Twist—teach younger ones the art, and then absorbing them into canons. But due to ratcheted-up law enforcement measures, including heftier sentences (in some states, a pick, defined as theft from the body of another person and charged as a felony regardless of the amount taken) and better surveillance of hot spots and known pickpockets, that system has been dismantled.

This is not the case in Europe, where pickpocketing has been less of a priority for law enforcement and where professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007...
--Joe Keohane, Slate, on why it's OK to keep your wallet in your back pocket

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