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After decreasing during lockdown, crime on the rise as pandemic rages on

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For the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the state was under a strict shelter-in-place lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, police departments reported significant drops in crime. People were staying home and, as a result, committing fewer crimes.

But now, as many stores and restaurants have reopened — albeit at limited capacity — law enforcement officials are beginning to see a sharp spike in crimes, including an increase in thefts and an ongoing rise in vehicle thefts.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont held a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials, mayors and leaders from Project Longevity — a law enforcement and social services program — to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on crime in the state.

Max Reiss, spokesperson for the governor, said the governor’s office has “kept a dialogue open with cities and towns regarding some of the consequences of the pandemic, and rising violent crime rates in cities was one of them.” The governor, Reiss said, felt it was necessary to hold a public conversation about the issue.

During the conversation, Marc Pelka, undersecretary of the state Office of Policy and Management, said the drop and then spike in crime since COVID-19 reached Connecticut in March has been seen statewide.

“In early months, arrests went down as everyone sheltered in place, but as the pandemic has stretched on, some criminal activities have rebounded,” he said, adding that some cities in the state have seen an increase in gun violence and most areas have seen an increase in vehicle break-ins and thefts.

“Property crime overall is down but motor vehicle thefts continue to plague communities and law enforcement in our state,” Pelka said.

Property crime, including larcenies and burglaries, have been down in most places since the start of the pandemic.

John DeCarlo, a retired police chief and director of the master’s program in criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said that nationwide, property crime overall has decreased about 8%, thefts from stores have decreased about 10% and burglaries have dropped about 8%. He said the drop is likely due to a lack of opportunity in such crimes.

DeCarlo, a scholar of criminology, said that according to criminal theory, there are three things that need to be present for a crime to be committed: an offender who is motivated to commit the crime, a likely target for the crime and a lack of capable guardianship, meaning a low likelihood of being caught.

“If you upset any of those three things, it’s very hard for crime to happen,” he said.

Due to COVID-19, a major factor has often been missing: the opportunity to steal or break in with a low likelihood of being caught.

Since people are home more often, there have been fewer opportunities to break in to empty homes. Since stores are operating at limited capacity, and for a while were closed, there was less opportunity to steal from retailers.

But people being home more often has meant that their cars are left unattended for longer periods of time.

Vehicle break-ins rising

Law enforcement officials in New London, East Lyme and Waterford and state police troops have all reported a significant increase in the number of car thefts and vehicle break-ins.

According to state data, those crimes are often being committed by teens. Figures provided by the state Judicial Branch showed 812 juvenile auto theft cases have come into the court system this year — a nearly 20% increase over last year's figure of 678.

Often, offenders involved in these crimes are coming to the shoreline from upstate cities, like New Britain or the Hartford area, and targeting vehicles in multiple towns and cities in the region.

During the discussion with Gov. Lamont this month, New Haven police Chief Otoneil Reyes said that juvenile-related crimes are spiking statewide.

“We know that that is a byproduct of the pandemic,” he said. “A byproduct of them not being in a structured environment because of the pandemic.”

DeCarlo said that the “routine activity theory,” developed by two Illinois scholars, predicted that large changes in social interaction would result in differences to crime trends.

The COVID-19 pandemic, he said, is a good test of that theory.

During the pandemic, children and teens have seen drastic changes to their everyday lives as schools closed and pivoted, either full time or part time, to remote learning. They have less social interaction with their peers and less accountability from teachers, administrators, counselors and coaches that they would normally encounter every day at school.

Leaders from Project Longevity, a law enforcement and social services initiative meant to reduce group violence statewide, participated in the governor’s roundtable and said that the lack of exposure to role models and leaders in school systems may be contributing significantly to more crimes being committed by teens.

Stacey Spell, New Haven project manager for Project Longevity, and Archie Generoso, the project’s statewide director, said that overall, many communities have seen “a perfect storm” of issues this year that ultimately have led to a spike in crime, including violent crimes, nationwide.

Because of the pandemic, they said, there are more people in financial crises and more people are experiencing mental health issues — whether due to those financial crises, or other new challenges like isolation, stress from worrying about contracting the virus and grief from the loss of loved ones to COVID-19.

The pandemic, they said, has starkly highlighted disparities in health, education and economics in our communities and has brought to light the need for better social support systems to deal with such crises; better plans to mobilize resources for communities; and more ways to reach youth who need support outside of schools.

Lt. Marc Balestracci of the Waterford Police Department said one of the biggest changes his department has seen during the pandemic is an increase in what it labels “Assist and Respond to Community Help” calls, which have risen 8%.

“These calls are a direct result of the pandemic,” he said. “These calls range from delivering PPE (personal protective equipment), follow-ups on remote students not connecting with the schools, checking the governor’s executive orders for compliance at local businesses when we receive complaints and any other community service the police department assists with that are related to the pandemic.”

The department has increased its focus on community wellness policing, which it plans to continue even after the pandemic.

Waterford, Balestracci said, has seen a 32% drop in the total number of crimes committed this year compared to 2019, as well as a 32% decrease in the number of traffic-related stops as community members have shifted to mostly learning and working from home.

However, he also noted the number of vehicle break-ins and thefts.

Those crimes also have increased in New London. Overall, arrests in the city decreased 19% since last year, according to Capt. Brian Wright. Crimes of opportunity seem to be the most common during the pandemic, he said.

Chief Michael Finkelstein of the East Lyme Police Department said that from Sept. 1 through Dec. 18, the number of all arrests increased from the same period in 2019 — from 43 to 62. The number of DUI arrests significantly decreased, while the number of assault and narcotics arrests significantly increased, and larceny stayed about the same.

From the start of the pandemic in March through Dec. 18, the department conducted a total of 426 criminal investigations — up from 387 in the same period last year — the majority of which involved some type of theft, including vehicle thefts and shoplifting.

Finkelstein said the town has “experienced a significant uptick in all areas” since the summer. The biggest increase in East Lyme also has been in thefts from vehicles, he said.

Lamont said that statewide, officials are “thinking long and hard” about how to fight the spike in crimes like shootings and car thefts, along with all juvenile crimes.

Earlier this month, he announced federal grants from coronavirus relief funds — $125,000 to Waterbury and New Haven — to support partnerships between communities and police departments.

The governor said the state is working “with all hands on deck” to support communities, law enforcement and groups while continuing to fight the pandemic.

t.hartz@theday.com

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