COVID-19 and measures to limit its spread have reached just about every aspect of society, and the criminal element is no exception.
Local law enforcement officials said they have seen shifts in the types of crimes being reported and many have seen a slight decrease in crime overall since stay-at-home orders took effect countywide last month. In McLennan County, arrests between March 23 and Thursday were down more than 70% compared to the same period last year, from 1,065 arrests last year to 312 this year, according to county jail records.
“This is different for most everybody in any department, I think because this is a new normal,” Waco police Officer Garen Bynum said. “There are some changes that we’ve made to keep us safe and protected as possible, but we are still dedicated to getting out there and serving the public.”
For certain nonviolent misdemeanor offences, Waco police are avoiding making on-site arrests, but detectives are continuing to investigate all crimes with the intent of getting warrants and following up later when appropriate, Bynum said. With school campuses closed as part of the measures to limit the spread of the disease, increases in some types of crimes are mirroring what police typically see during schools’ summer break.
“What we are seeing across the board is consistent with crime trends that we typically see during the summertime,” Bynum said. “We typically have an increase in misdemeanor types of crimes, but all crime reports are still being investigated. … We’ve had some increases in certain types of crimes, but they aren’t large increases. We’ve had small increases, like burglary-related calls, a small increase in domestic dispute calls and an increase in fights in progress calls.”
Shoplifting calls, for one, have been down from previous months, he said.
According to a USA Today analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states, police logged dramatically fewer calls for service, crime incidents and arrests in the last two weeks of March than each of the previous six weeks. Departments across the country have been adapting procedures and following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara sent a letter to local agencies last month requesting that they limit or delay certain misdemeanor arrests to keep the jail population down. The spread of COVID-19 among inmates and jail staff is of particular concern because of their close quarters. Judges also have approved personal recognizance bonds for certain nonviolent inmates to be released and have prioritized cases in their general proceedings that could result in a release.
In addition to those considerations, patrol deputies have reported seeing less activity in general, McNamara said.
“Everyone is saying that things are quieter than normal, and detectives have fewer cases coming in per day than there was,” he said. “As far as family violence reports, we have had a decrease in those types of calls.”
Detective Joseph Scaramucci, who specializes in work on the county’s human trafficking unit, said sex buying in McLennan County and Waco continues to be a concern with children out of school and many people out of work at the moment.
“What we need to pay attention to in the midst of this crisis are the vulnerable populations who are out of work, in financial hard times. We also need to pay particular attention to our children who are out of school and are talking online through social media,” Scaramucci said. “Children have more screen time now, and human traffickers will likely start attempting to groom and exploit those who are most vulnerable.”
Lacy Lakeview Police Chief John Truehitt described current activity as “surreal” but said officers have not seen a significant change in crime.
Robinson Police Chief Phillip Prasifka said residents are adapting to recommendations by cities.
“We’ve been impressed, because it seems like the community is buying in, which is good,” Prasifka said. “We are trying to push the message out and we are trying to stay on top of the situation as it evolves daily.”
In Hewitt, Police Chief Jim Devlin said the majority of residents are obeying social distancing orders, and the police call volume has decreased in the city. Property thefts have decreased significantly, but civil disturbances have increased slightly.
“Some of these calls are just people who have been around each other a little too long, and we’ve had plenty of those but nothing that is extremely significant,” Devlin said. “When this started, things were changing daily and we just had to go on recommendations from the CDC, but we are going to have to keep making adjustments to keep the public safe, like most all departments.”