While the media are getting caught up reporting widespread looting in the aftermath of the Queensland floods, research shows that looting is usually non-existent after a natural disaster — and that media reports of looting are putting lives at risk.

The Australian is today reporting that Queensland Police has set up a special 200-strong anti-looting taskforce, even though the article later admits that there have only been a “handful” of reports of looting. And Ipswich mayor Paul Pisdale has been widely quoted as saying “If I find anybody looting in our city they will be used as flood markers”. According to his fellow councillor Paul Tully, “The residents I’ve been speaking with at our evacuation centers today are despondent and the thoughts that their properties are being looted are devastating.”

But there is a large and increasing body of research, here and overseas, showing that after natural disasters looting is extremely rare — and that rumors, panic, and media reports blow it all out of proportion.

According to “Common Misconceptions About Disasters: Panic, the ‘Disaster Syndrome’ and Looting”, “except in civil disorders and riots, increased criminal activity is uncommon in US disasters”. The report sites several recent disasters, including 9/11, alongside police reports that indicate very minimal levels of looting. “Overall, many jurisdictions reported a decrease in criminal activity”, as communities band together to help one another.

A report by the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware, entitled “Looting After a Disaster: A Myth or Reality?”, found “looting of any kind is rare in certain kinds of disasters in certain types of societies. The pattern of looting in natural disasters is different from what occurs in civil disturbances. There are occasional atypical instances of mass lootings that only emerge if a complex set of prior social conditions exist”. These conditions are mostly centered, according to the report, around the existence of extreme social inequality — in a disaster, a group that feels extremely oppressed may take advantage of the chaos. But if this extreme inequality does not exist, according to the report, looting is very rare.

Even the Rockhampton Police are attempting to dispel looting rumours — a media release reading “Rockhampton police have been extremely disappointed by incorrect claims of looting offences in the district over the last 24 hours while the area deals with its biggest flood since 1991. Unfortunately property offences within larger provincial centres such as Rockhampton do happen — whether the area is flooded or not,” acting Superintendant Curtin said.

The panic that rumours and reports of looting can generate poses a very real danger to communities hit by natural disasters. According to “Common Misconceptions About Disasters”, “one reason people refuse to evacuate in disasters is to protect their property … and over-zealous police and security guards managing roadblocks set up to keep looters out sometimes prevent the entry of legitimate disaster-response personnel”. The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC have carried stories about people refusing to evacuate homes because of fears of looting — putting them in real danger. Ironically, the rumors of looting cause more harm than the looting itself.

Doctor Rob Gordon — an Australian disaster recovery expert, and consulting psychologist for the Victorian State Emergency Plan, told Crikey “looting is a social breakdown phenomenon, and that needs to be distinguished from property crime. Once you actually define looting and look for it, you don’t find it. What you find is property crime”.

Dr Gordon says there will always be criminal elements in society, but these elements will commit crimes in times of normalcy and disaster — and natural disasters do not drive more people to crime. Hence, much of the looting phenomenon is actually just ordinary property crime, that would occur with or without disaster conditions. “We have in any community a certain number of people who will make their living by stealing other people’s property. What we’ve got is a steady state of human characteristics after the disaster as well as before. But the tabloid media are saying, ‘something extraordinary is happening, look, people are stealing stuff, aren’t people terrible’ — but people do this all the time.”