A concern for the 21st century

Law enforcement and the elderly: a concern for the 21st century

Lamar Jordan

The baby-boom generation, consisting of persons born in the United States between 1946 and 1960, is beginning to turn gray. This generation has had a profound socioeconomic impact on American society for the past 50 years and, based on a comparison of the Uniform Crime Reports from the 1960s through the 1980s, this group even may have contributed to the growing crime rates during that period as they entered their teens and their twenties. What will be the impact of this large demographic group on crime, either as offenders or victims, in the new millennium?

Today, approximately 1 out of 8 Americans must face the realities of aging. (1) Their situations vary as do the ways they deal with growing older. Regardless of their circumstances, however, most older people say that they worry about crime.

As a group, older people can represent a powerful and active force. As individuals, they can be vulnerable and may need help. This vulnerability sets the elderly apart from other age groups also concerned about crime because it requires an innovative community-wide approach to the singular problem of the elderly and crime. With some reports showing there are as many as 35 million people over the age of 65 in the United States, older people remain a growing influence in our society. (2) The time when America was a nation of young people remains in the past and will not likely return. If figures today show older people dominating, as the baby boomers grow older, the demographics will shift more dramatically toward an older society.

Law enforcement must consider the elderly and those crimes that most often victimize senior citizens. Additionally, they must address the older offender and focus on the challenge facing law enforcement in dealing with this growing segment of the population.

The Elderly and Crime

Generalizations are no more valid when describing the aging than when used in connection with other categories. No matter the physical or mental condition of older persons, they still can become a victim of crime–just like anyone of any age. The difference lies, in part, in the effects of the crime. Whatever the reasons leading to victimization, the results could have lasting and unhappy consequences for an older person who may be limited physically, emotionally, and financially.

The elderly may not recover with the same agility as when they were younger. A broken hip as the result of a mugging, the frightening encounter with a criminal bent on harm, or the loss of savings to a con artist may diminish an older person’s quality of life and make some elderly live the last of their years in fear and distress. As reflected in reported crime, the elderly are not in the age group most frequently victimized by crime, fear of crime remains greater among this age group. In fact, for many seniors, the fear of crime may alter their lifestyles. Even if this fear remains an extreme reaction or is based on an imagined, rather than an actual situation, it proves no less debilitating or stressful. The fear of crime denotes a disturbing element in the existence of many older people.

Types of Crime

While many crimes could involve any age, certain categories–frauds and scams, purse snatching, pocket-picking, stealing checks from the mail, and committing crimes in long-term care settings–claim more older than younger victims. (3) The litany of crimes against the elderly remains virtually endless, with nearly every community reporting such distressing accounts.

In particular, the elderly remain specifically susceptible to fraud schemes that can destroy their financial resources and personal security. The FBI’s Operation Disconnect revealed deliberate targeting of older persons by con artists. (4) The U.S. Postal Inspection Service also revealed disproportionate numbers of older potential victims.

Many elderly people have insurance, pension plans, proceeds from the sale of homes, and money from Social Security and savings that makes them attractive financial targets for criminals. Their lifestyles provide a friendly environment for con artists. Because many elderly live by themselves and are lonely, they remain more suspectible to telephone and mail fraud. They often have limited experience with investments, live in older homes in need of repair, and have immediate access to their money, much of it in cash.

Their fear of violent crime and disregard for other types of crime may make older people more vulnerable to con artists. The older generation often are more trusting and polite than younger people and may intimidate more easily. They tend to be complacent if the con artist is young; they fear inflation; they do not understand modern investments; and they may forget details. They often are persuaded by references to authority and embarrassed to admit, or may not realize, that they were swindled.

Older victims have limited recovery potential. Law enforcement usually cannot recover money lost to a con artist. Often, older victims experience a loss of self-esteem because they allowed themselves to be conned and may feel a loss of independence because they can no longer live alone or may have moved in with their children. Some even fear that their children will attempt to seize their assets. The loss of money limited resources, and it can devastate many older persons.

Although all cities experience burglaries, thefts, and vandalism, which affect individuals of all ages, these crimes remain especially distressing for older people. The invasion of a person’s living quarters or damage to their possessions may prove economically and emotionally destructive. Property crimes may seriously affect individuals whose security and well-being are tenuous or who may have a limited ability to replace stolen or damaged property. In addition to the loss of possessions, the elderly victim may never feel secure in their home after the incident.

Some older persons may not report many crimes or suspicious activities because they may fear retaliation. In the case of vandalism, they may fear a repeat of the crime. The elderly may see defacing a building, or damaging a lawn, plants, or an automobile as a personal attack.

Some authorities suggest that as many as 2.5 million incidents of abuse of older persons may occur in any given year (5) and generally recognize that mistreatment can occur both in domestic and institutional settings. As the older population increases, the incidents of mistreatment also likely will grow. Although the criminal justice system has become actively involved in the prevention and prosecution of child abuse cases, the awareness of, and protocols for, dealing with abuse of the elderly may not be as well defined in some jurisdictions. Despite the number of estimated cases, abuse of the elderly remains a hidden problem in many areas. Although the social services network has established numerous procedures for intervention and treatment, few exist in the criminal justice system.

The Older Offender

Crime reports consistently have shown that the majority of serious offenses are committed by persons under 25 years of age, and, in general, the likelihood a person will commit a crime decreases with age. (6) As people mature, they become capable of more rational thought and can calculate the probability of success in crime more accurately. Although the amount remains insignificant when compared to the total number of arrests, crime by the elderly could become a critical concern in view of the increasing percentage of this population. The criminal justice system will need to give more attention to processing the elderly, as well as custodial care for those who are incarcerated.

The greatest number of arrests for serious offenses committed by the elderly is for larceny-theft, and most of these arrests are for shoplifting. (7) Some studies describe shoplifting among the elderly as alarming and reaching epidemic proportions. (8) Aggravated assaults remain the second highest number of arrests for serious offenses. Additionally, law enforcement agencies frequently arrest the elderly for other offenses, such as driving under the influence and public drunkenness. (9)

Law Enforcement’s Response

The criminal justice system always has depended on cooperation and communication between law enforcement personnel and the public. Most successful prosecutions rely upon the willingness of citizens to testify in court simply because citizens witness a large number of crimes.

Because the average age of America’s population is increasing rapidly, law enforcement agencies likely may deal with a higher percentage of older citizens in the future. More older people will witness crimes, testify in court, and become victims of certain types of criminal activity.

Law enforcement must understand the elderly’s expectations, vulnerabilities, and fears to communicate effectively with them. Additionally, officers must realize that different groups of citizens have varying needs and that persons over 65 years of age now constitute the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population Several factors play a daily role in the conduct of law enforcement duties that can work against good communication with people of any age, but particularly with many older adults. Time pressures, emotional situations, and the tendency to mask vision or hearing deficiencies are factors that disrupt the communication process. To resolve these potential problems, law enforcement should remain alert to clues that many elderly people do not hear or see well and then implement compensation techniques.

Older people not only can have an increasing impact within their communities and upon government but they generally are supportive of law enforcement and can constitute a valuable source of political support, information, and volunteer capability. Misunderstandings about older persons, however, can restrict the effectiveness of even the best-intentioned law enforcement programs.

Working with older people will become a necessity for almost all law enforcement agencies. Those departments with community policing objectives should develop special service and crime prevention programs to assist members of the older population. (10)

Many factors will facilitate good working relationships between older citizens and law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement personnel usually are highly motivated and eager to assist older members of their communities, and most older adults look to law enforcement officers to protect and help them. Although times have changed, the attitudes of most older people toward the police remain positive.

Law enforcement agencies face some challenges when working with older people. Usually, officers having the most frequent contact with older people are young and have little experience working with older adults. Few academies offer training that would help new officers understand the particular problems and attitudes of older people concerning crime and the criminal justice system in general.

The issue of crime and older persons does not always involve dependency upon law enforcement. Many older people can assist law enforcement authorities in several significant ways. For example, police and sheriff’s departments often find that older people make capable volunteers because of their good work habits and past work experiences. Because many older residents are at home during the day, they can assist law enforcement in other ways, such as reporting crime and participating in Neighborhood Watch programs. Law enforcement must remember that most elderly people can function normally and that age alone should not hinder communication or learning new skills, such as crime prevention techniques.


A large percentage of the population is aging. The baby-boom generation will impact as many facets of society as senior citizens as they have throughout their lives. The criminal justice system and, in particular, law enforcement face the aging population as a special challenge for the 21st century. Police managers must take steps to improve communication with this growing segment. Law enforcement training academies should modify their programs to help prepare officers to deal more effectively with the elderly.

The average age of law enforcement officers probably will not increase as fast as the general population they serve. Law enforcement personnel must learn to understand the attitudes, capabilities, and limitations of older people and how to communicate in an effective and sensitive way with this important and growing element of society. In so doing, this will help law enforcement remain ready to address this challenge in an adequate and professional manner.


(1.) U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office for Victims of crime, TRIAD, Reducing Crime Against the Elderly, An Implementation Handbook (Washington, DC, 1993), 11.

(2.) Senator John Glenn, “NBC Nightly News,” August 24, 1998.

(3.) Supra note 1, 15.

(4.) In 1993, the FBI implemented Operation Disconnect, which targeted telemarketing fraud resulting in the indictment and conviction of 402 subjects and the seizure of $7.65 million in property and $6.76 million in forfeiture. For additional information on this investigative effort, see, http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/fc/ec/cases/criminalecu.htm.

(5.) Supra note 1, 20.

(6.) Neal Shaver, “Age, Differential Expectations and Crime Desistance,” Criminology 30, February 1992.

(7.) U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 1998 (Washington, DC), 221.

(8.) “Old Enough to Know Better, A Stunning Rise in Crime by Senior Citizens Creates a Quandry,” Time, September 20, 1982.

(9.) Supra note 7.

(10.) For example, TRIAD consists of a three-way effort among sheriffs, police chiefs, and the AARP or older/retired leadership in the area who agree to work together to reduce the criminal victimization of older citizens and enhance the delivery of law enforcement services to the older population.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group