How COVID-19 has impacted Michiana crime levels, first responders

NOW: How COVID-19 has impacted Michiana crime levels, first responders

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. --- It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on the lives of those throughout the community.

In the past month, ABC57 has looked at everything from churches to restaurants, and now the series continues with a look at crime and how those numbers are adjusting to the new way of living.

Whether crime is improving, is not a simple answer.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought sweeping change to everything from how first responders handle calls to the types of calls they are responding to.

“I’ll tell you—it’s been wholesale changes for our folks,” Executive Director at St. Joseph County 911, Raymond Shultz said.

“It has affected it in more ways than I can count,” St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said.

Prosecutors, police officers, firefighters, EMS and countless other first responders have had to change the way they do their jobs thanks to COVID-19.

That is not the only change folks in Michiana are seeing, either.

“When the stay at home order started, our call volume decreased drastically,” Shultz said. “So we were down about 20-25%.”

Calls for police, fire and EMS dropped dramatically, which came as a surprise to Shultz.

“I thought that more folks would have been worried well and they would want to go in and get evaluated at the hospital, it turns out it was the opposite,” Shultz said. “Police calls dropped if you think about you know, the stay at home order—people weren’t driving. So car crashes dropped dramatically, bars were closed. So fights and disturbances at those establishments went down to you know, nothing.”

On the other hand, Shultz said domestic violence and psychiatric calls went up. That trend, an industry standard for those cooped up at home, according to Shultz.

Violent crimes, including domestic battery and burglary have stayed relatively consistent, according to Cotter.

“Unfortunately, that has not decreased,” Cotter said. “The good news is, other crimes have decreased significantly. There have been fewer thefts, there’s fewer DUIs, there’s fewer drug possession, drug usage. We’ve had about a 40% decrease in our misdemeanor crimes in the two months that we’ve been suffering under the pandemic.”

Cotter said the decrease in drug usage does come as a surprise, but it does not necessarily mean there is less of it.

“It can be though that the drug usage is now being done in people’s homes,” Cotter said. “And so police and anybody else, we’re not coming across it.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Cotter said the crime has traditionally gone down year after year—roughly cutting misdemeanors by 55% since the 90’s.

“So there’s been a decrease as the years have gone on, but not to the extent that we’ve had here,” Cotter said. “I mean when you’ve got a 40% reduction in misdemeanor crime—at least we are charging and able to charge—that’s pretty significant.”

That trend in St. Joseph County is not exclusive; the city of Elkhart has seen similar statistics.

From March through May over the past three years, crime has generally gone down year after year.

ABC57’s Brenda Koopsen studied the dates aligned with Indiana’s ‘Stay at Home’ order, beginning with March 23 through the end of the month.

Statistics show that crime went down approximately 40% from March 2019 to March 2020.

In April, overall crime dropped nearly 48% from 2019 to 2020.

In May, numbers fell 33% in 2020 from 2019.

Those numbers come from certain types of crime, such as anything from burglaries and battery to reports of dog bites and driving without a license—even fights and domestic disturbances.

“You know, a lot of people would think domestics go up because people are together more often,” Elkhart Lt. Travis Snider said. “And those stayed relatively about the same as the two previous years compared. Burglaries actually went down just a little bit and that’s kind of expected because everybody’s home.”

Data from Elkhart showed other crimes, such as DUI’s and personal injury accidents were also lower and the way officers respond to crimes is changing as well.

“Anytime we go out of the office or get out of the squad car, we got to put a mask on,” Snider said. “We try to maintain six foot social distancing. Now it’s 24 seven. So essentially, if I leave my office, I gotta have a mask on. I’ve always got a pair of gloves with me.”

Those changes, a continuous thought for Elkhart police officers. “It’s important I think to stress that our service hasn’t changed,” Snider said. “How we go about it is a little different.”

For example, when witnesses or suspects are brought in for an interview, that room now needs to be cleaned regularly.

The car that brings those people from place to place needs to be cleaned as well.

“We came up with a transport car,” Snider said. “So, any time an officer needs to move someone from point A to point B, we would use that dedicated transport car. It’s a lot easier to clean one car that’s fairly easy to clean than it is to clean the whole fleet.”

In South Bend, an officer who has been on the force for more than 20 years had similar thoughts on COVID-19.

“It really changed a lot of things,” Patrol Division Chief Eric Crittendon said.

That change started with PPE. SBPD officers have ramped up cleaning techniques thanks to a new tool.

“We were fortunate enough to secure a Clorox 360 machine, which is a disinfectant machine,” Crittendon said.

All officers have to do is meet up with maintenance personnel and their cars get sprayed down to kill off potential germs.

“What’s nice is they don’t even have to take anything out of their cars,” Crittendon said. “So it’s safe, it’s quick because once it’s cleaned the officer is able to get back in and within seconds, go back to their routine duties.”

There have also been some changes in the way officers participate in roll calls, instead of coming into the station six days a week, they now only come in twice; the rest is done right in the area of South Bend that they patrol. This is a change the department plans on keeping around post-coronavirus, according to Crittendon.

“It keeps the officers out in the community more and more visible to the public,” Crittendon said.

Crittendon said officers have also changed the way they respond to calls.

Officers are no longer appearing at non-emergency calls; instead they are doing a lot of their work over the phone.

After police officers finish their investigation, they pass things over to the prosecutor’s office.

“I think that very well may be the new norm for us,” Cotter said.

One of the biggest changes will be what the courtroom looks like once trials resume.

“I have no idea what a trial is going to look like,” Cotter said. “I think, to me is the hardest thing to try to figure out how you get the appropriate social distancing for jurors. How do you do that for witnesses? What about the general public who wants to come and watch the trial?”

All of these steps are still in limbo as they work closely with officials to sort it out.

“I know it’s going to be different,” Cotter said.

Some good news, though, the judges and Prosecutor Cotter have individually looked at all of the people in jail.

“And then we significantly reduced our jail population,” Cotter said.

This frees up more space for violent offenders while changing the way they think about who ends up locked away.

“But if crime remains going down, then we’ve learned something that those traditional ways of evaluating whether or not a person should be detained can maybe look at it and say that’s not accurate,” Cotter said.

While most cases do not end up going to trial because a plea deal is reached, the pandemic has even allowed more time for prosecutors and defense counsels to examine the case and come to an agreement.

“The one positive has allowed us to fully examine whether or not that impasse that caused us to go to trial—maybe that can be resolved,” Cotter said. “Maybe there was something that we didn’t understand, the defense counsel didn’t understand. And I think that we have resolved more cases than we otherwise would have, because it gave us that time.”

As Michiana begins to rebound, there is speculation around whether crime could spike again.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that maybe we’re setting a new norm that instead of going to the bar and having four and five and six drinks, that if that’s what you want to do—why don’t you do that at your house,” questioned Cotter.

“I think that folks have been penned up for so long, you know, then stuck at home for so long that I think they’re going to be looking for a release and they’re going to want to get out and do stuff,” Shultz said. “And when that opens up, I would expect to see an increase in call volume at those places.”

There is no question that the past few months have created monumental changes across the board for the Michiana community.

For some, it is hard to get used to.

“It’s just been so much change in such a short amount of time,” Shultz said. “And it’s hard. Folks have days off and they come back from days off and things are totally different.”

For others, it has gone even better than expected.

“Which is probably the best outcome when you’re planning for situations,” Snider said. “You want it to turn out better than you expected.”

With all the changes, one thing remained the same.

“We just have to make sure that the number one priority is that people are safe,” Cotter said. “We still have a job to do, which is to try the best, best we can to keep our community safe.”

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