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  • Sasha Brisbon

As Coronavirus Surges, Crime Declines

The U.S. confirmed its first coronavirus case January 20th and its first death by the end of February. However, it was not until March 13th that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and normal life in America came to a halt. On Saturday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 492,416 cases of the coronavirus, an increase of 33,251 cases from its previous count, and said the number of deaths rose by 1,989 to 18,559.

Amid this deadly pandemic, major cities across the United States are reporting significant dips in major crimes like burglary, assault, murder, robbery, and grand larceny. For example, 19 out of 20 police agencies reported a lower number of criminal incidents since March 15. The agencies also reported a significant decrease in traffic stops, down as much as 92% in some areas. “In some sense, it’s like a giant blizzard has hit and there’s 10 feet of snow on the ground,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York Police Department officer who is now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Massive drops in traffic and person stops – as much as 92% in some jurisdictions – helped drive sharp declines in drug offenses and DUIs. Thefts and residential burglaries decreased with fewer stores open and homes unoccupied, and some agencies logged fewer assaults and robberies. Bookings into each of nearly two dozen county jails monitored by the news organization fell by at least a quarter since February. Overall, calls for service fell by at least 12% and incidents by at least 21% at most of the police agencies. The county jails after March 15 booked arrestees at half the rate as before.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the county with the highest number of confirmed cases in Maryland until April 8th, crime rates plummeted after Governor Larry Hogan shut down all bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and large gatherings by executive order March 16th.He later issued a mandatory statewide stay-at-home order as positive cases in the state topped from 1,000 to 2,300 in just a few days. The Montgomery County Police Department reported 13% fewer call dispatches and more than a third fewer criminal incidents in the last two weeks of March compared with the previous six weeks.

In Chicago, however, shootings are still occurring. The Marshall Project found that the number of shootings dropped by 50% over a four day-period last week compared to the week before. But the following Wednesday, the Chicago Sun Times reported that shootings were rising again; 12 people were shot in one day alone. Crime data in Los Angeles and Detroit show similar downward trends for the week ending on March 22. Both cities reported around a 20% drop. Numbers released by the New York Police Department at the end of last week show shootings dropping by more than 30%, down nearly a quarter compared to the same week last year. Accordingly, the Marshall Project conducted an analysis and compared crime numbers for this year with an average of the same weeks in previous years – the decrease is even more noticeable.

Andy Papachristos, a Northwestern University sociologist specializing in gun violence, said the pandemic will not slow down the shootings, which he says are spurred by entrenched poverty. “Climate change and infectious disease are not violence prevention strategies,” Papachristos said. “Nothing changes with shelter-in-place. Those that are involved in gun violence are already high-risk in every dimension imaginable: health, housing, employment, homelessness.”

Nevertheless, as most crime rates continue to decline, domestic violence cases have spiked. According to a nationwide survey conducted by USA Today, Detroit received 769 domestic violence calls over the past two weeks of March, a 9% spike from weeks prior. In Tucson, Arizona, police recorded 292 domestic violence incidents, which is also up by 9%. In Santa Rosa, California, which has been under shelter-in-place orders since March 17, city police saw domestic disturbance calls jump from 42 a week to 51. Maryland police have noticed the change as well. “It’s something we unfortunately expected knowing that people are going to be quarantined in their homes,” said Montgomery County Police Department Chief Marcus Jones.

At the same time, calls for public nuisance complaints such as loud noise from parties have been on the rise. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received 362 loud-music complaints in the last two weeks of March, nearly matching its total for all of February. The trends reflects both a purposeful reduction in police activity, officer-initiated stops and the effect of stay-at-home orders that have closed huge swaths of highly populated areas, pushing people into their homes and out of traditional crime hot spots, such as bars, clubs and social events. “So many people are sheltering in place, crimes of opportunities are dropping,” John MacDonald, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are fewer potential victims out there.” But he cautioned against reading too much into the data, describing the drop in incidents as “episodic” rather than a long-term trend.


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