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Does the Presence of Superheroes Encourage Petty Crime?

I’ve got another item from my Facebook archives today (this one’s from February 21, 2014):

So I’ve been wondering what the effect of superhero presences would be on crime rate in a given area. Generally, superheroes deal with a few select high profile crimes–those committed by supervillains. Because of narrative selection, we tend to see mostly superhero successes (and a few select dramatic failures).

But we know that there IS still crime in these superhero spaces; we occasionally see superheroes foiling a common crime, such as a mugging (cf. the origin stories of Batman and Spiderman, for instance), but this generally only happens when the superhero just happens to be on hand at the time. We also know that there must be enough crime to require a reasonably sized police force, as we often see police in action in the backgrounds of superhero stories.

The best Batman (Adam West) works closely with traditional law enforcement
Via GIPHY

I see this going three ways: The presence of superheroes can increase or decrease local crime rates, or it may have no overall effect.

Decrease: Criminals and criminal organizations are aware that superhero intervention is a threat, and are therefore more cautious, causing a polarizing effect in which you only get two kinds of criminals: dumb ones who aren’t considering the consequences of their actions and tend to act more impulsively, and the ones who think they’re clever enough to outsmart the superheroes for whatever reason. Cops on the street wind up mostly acting as support for the superheroes and function to keep down the dumb ones, which should be pretty light work.

Increase: The presence of superheroes attracts supervillains. This is demonstrably true. It is possible that the presence of supervillains encourages crime, both actively in which they recruit petty criminals to do work for them (we see this in some villain schemes, getting resources through petty crime, etc) and passively by serving as a role model–criminals aspire to supervillainy and start small.

No effect: Superheroes and supervillains cancel each other out, and ordinary crime continues as it would otherwise. In this case, we see a completely stratified crime system. Ordinary crime fighters (cops) fight ordinary criminals, and extraordinary crime fighters (superheroes) fight extraordinary criminals (supervillains), and they meet about as often as the very rich and the very poor do in a given city; they pass each other in the street and sometimes intervene, but generally keep to themselves. There is some evidence for this theory in that we see as plot elements that people are often driven to crime in superhero universes by ordinary adverse circumstances (they can’t pay the rent, they need money for medical treatment, etc), so we know that ordinary crime still exists in superhero-infested places.

I have not accounted for white-collar crime (embezzling, bribery, insider trading, and other forms of corruption) in this discussion, but that’s certainly something worth considering.

The next question, of course, is what effect the presence of superheroes has on ordinary law-enforcement organizations. [That’s a discussion for another time.]

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