NEW YORK — The first weeks of pandemic in the nation’s largest city spurred a double-digit drop in crime, as the bad guys seem to be just as scared of the novel coronavirus as everyone else.
Spring typically is a time for crime to start rising, as warm weather brings more people outside. But the covid-19 cases that have struck New York harder than anyplace else in the United States seem to have kept many criminals indoors, for now.
“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.
In the days before and after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) ordered all nonessential business to stop Sunday evening, crime fell across many categories, including burglary, assault and larceny, by double-digit percentages, according to week-by-week crime figures from the NYPD.
Last week New York City recorded a single murder, compared with eight the week before. Burglaries and assaults were each down about 18 percent compared with the previous week. Judging any single week’s crime data against another is dicey because small samples can make misleading short-term fluctuations look like trends, but the immediate impact of covid-19 seems to clearly be a sharp drop in crime, not just in New York but around the country.
Other data suggests that in many cases, criminal suspects are staying home. Flock Safety, a company that sells license-plate-reader technology, said data from its cameras in Florida, California and Texas show a significant drop in “hits” on stolen cars and cars belonging to people with outstanding warrants. That drop closely tracked the overall decline in cars on the road, the company said.
“These are sharp declines of 70 and 60 percent of vehicular traffic in some places, and criminals, too, are also sheltering in place, because no one wants to get sick. The fact that we’re seeing less stolen cars on the road is a pretty good indicator that we’re seeing less crime in those cities,” said Flock Safety chief executive Garrett Langley.
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With so many families staying at home together, there could also be a serious decline in burglaries, since most residential burglaries happen during the day, said O’Donnell, who cautioned that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how society, and police departments, will handle the unfolding crisis.
“The whole thing is super fluid, and there are so many wild cards,” he said, particularly because criminal justice policy is often driven by singular, high-profile crimes. “People’s fears can change on a dime.”
For now, the fear is focused squarely on covid-19. On Thursday, Cuomo announced that the death toll in the state had risen to 385. By contrast, the number of people murdered in New York City all of last year was 319.
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New York has the largest police department in the country, but even the NYPD may find itself strained by the dual pressures of their own officers getting sick, and having to patrol mostly deserted streets.
Over 3,200 NYPD personnel are out sick — three times the average. Of those, 236 have tested positive for coronavirus, officials said.
“All of these numbers are deeply disturbing,” NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a videotaped message to the rank and file. “There’s no dispute you are on the front lines of this. . . . The eyes of the world right now are on us.”
Thursday night, officials announced the first NYPD death from the coronavirus: Dennis Dickson, a custodial staffer who worked at police headquarters.
The pandemic has also sparked concerns about jail and prison inmates who may be sitting ducks for the disease. Already, data from the city’s Department of Correction indicates that people being held in their jails are contracting coronavirus at a much higher rate than the general population. That has led criminal justice reform advocates, including House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to urge federal jails to release nonviolent defendants quickly to save lives.
An inmate in the federal jail in Manhattan and one in the federal lockup in Brooklyn have already tested positive.
“There are particular concerns in this institutional setting,” Attorney General William P. Barr said Thursday at an unrelated news conference. “We want to make sure that our institutions don’t become petri dishes and it spreads rapidly.”
To lessen the chances of that, Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement to get more prisoners out of the system.
So far, according to the Bureau of Prisons, six inmates and four staffers have contracted the virus at facilities around the country. One of them, an inmate in Louisiana, was hospitalized in critical condition.