As more people stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, law enforcement agencies across metro Atlanta are reporting a sharp decrease in crime rates.
Additionally, the majority of departments have instructed officers to issue nonviolent offenders written citations whenever possible in an effort to reduce inmate populations at local jails.
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In Cherokee County, deputies have seen their call volume drop drastically in recent weeks, sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker told AJC.com.
“It would be catastrophic if this got into our detention center,” Baker said Friday.
Between March 9 and March 27, a total of 226 people were booked into the Cherokee County jail, a major drop from the 388 arrests deputies made during the same time frame last year. And in the one-week period ending Friday, Cherokee deputies made even fewer arrests, apprehending just 79 people compared to the 199 arrests made over the same seven days in 2019.
“We have taken significant steps to reduce the chances of the virus entering our headquarters and detention center,” Baker said, adding that the sheriff’s office is working closely with surrounding agencies to “scrutinize who gets arrested and booked into our facility.”
Similar scenes are playing out across metro Atlanta as a growing number of cities and counties have imposed stay-at-home orders in an effort to limit the spread of the highly contagious disease. Then on Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced he is installing a shelter-in-place order for the entire state beginning Friday and keeping Georgia’s schools closed through the remainder of the academic year.
Flock Safety, an Atlanta-based company that installs and operates license plate readers used by law enforcement agencies, reports that hits on wanted drivers and stolen cars have fallen significantly since mid-March as more people stay inside.
In Gwinnett County, the number of March arrests fell by about 23.6% since last year, from 2,436 bookings in March 2019 to 1,922 last month, according to data released by the sheriff’s office Wednesday. The number of Gwinnett arrests has also decreased in each of the past two months, down from 2,371 bookings in January.
Atlanta police are also reporting fewer arrests. The department’s latest crime data released Thursday shows the number of people arrested between March 22 and March 28 was down by about 9% since last year.
The department is also seeing a drop in the number of crime-related calls for service as more Atlantans heed the advice of public health officials and remain indoors.
With fewer people on the roads, the number of traffic stops conducted by Atlanta officers fell 36% since the same seven-day period last year, according to the latest data. Overall traffic violations were down 55%.
But not all crime is down in Atlanta. With schools closed, police saw a 900% increase in curfew violations in that week-long period. Over the past 28 days, curfew violations involving juveniles are up 460% compared to March 2019.
In an interview last month, Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields said she expected to see a drop in automobile wrecks and a spike in the number of calls involving teenagers as the pandemic worsens.
“We are definitely seeing a decrease — largely in property crimes — that we believe is directly associated to COVID-19,” Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said. “The numerous retail closings have dramatically reduced shoplifting calls and the number of empty parking decks has reduced car break-ins.
“We are taking numerous precautions to ensure our officers are educated on the virus and protected when engaging the public and we will continue to work to ensure the safety of our city’s residents.”
Athens, one of the first Georgia cities to impose a shelter-in-place order, has seen a 33% decrease in crime since March 17, Lt. John Radford said. But the city is reporting an increase in property crimes and business break-ins.
Since the shelter-in-place ordinance went into effect, Athens police officers have seen a 79% increase in burglaries and a 25% increase in entering auto calls.
“We believe the increase in burglaries during the second half of the month is driven by commercial burglaries,” Radford said. “After the shelter in place that was enacted on March 17, commercial burglaries have increased by 175% compared to the two weeks before the 17th. Historically, commercial burglaries in Athens-Clarke County make up 17% of the total burglaries. Since March 17, commercial burglaries have made up 42% ... We have also seen a 25% increase in entering autos.”
Though most agencies across the state are seeing a drop in crime, several departments are warning that scammers are utilizing the public health crisis to take advantage of people’s fears and steal their money.
There have been several reports of people going door-to-door in more rural areas of the state and asking residents if they’ve been tested for COVID-19. Some appear to be after personal information while others seem to be taking advantage of the global health pandemic in an effort to make a quick buck, authorities said.
In Wayne County, a 38-year-old man was arrested last week after deputies said he and two juveniles went to neighbors’ homes wearing “quarantine suits” and claiming to be with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, however, law enforcement agencies across metro Atlanta have sent out fewer crime-related news releases in recent weeks, and the vast majority of information posted to their social media accounts is coronavirus related. While there were still homicides and a rash of officer-involved shootings last month, crimes such as police chases and robberies appear to be down in most jurisdictions.
As the virus enters the walls of Georgia’s jails and prisons, several sheriff’s departments across the region are taking steps to release certain inmates early while limiting the number of new arrests.
In Fulton County, for instance, deputies are not arresting certain offenders in an effort to mitigate the potential for overcrowding at the jail, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said. Fulton deputies are not arresting people with outstanding warrants from neighboring states unless they are accused of one of the “seven deadly sins,” she said. In Georgia, those crimes include murder, manslaughter, rape, armed robbery, child molestation, sodomy and sexual battery.
To reduce the threat of COVID-19 spreading within their jails, Fulton and Hall counties have also taken steps to release nonviolent offenders.
So far, 53 people have been freed from custody in Fulton, while Hall has been even more aggressive, releasing 200 inmates, AJC.com previously reported.
Law enforcement agencies across Hall also appear to be making fewer arrests, with the total number of bookings in the county decreasing from 971 in March 2019 to 570 last month, authorities said.
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths continues to rise in Georgia, it’s clear that law enforcement agencies are handling things differently.
“Officers are being asked to look at the bigger picture and realize that most courts are operating on a skeleton crew if they’re not already shut down,” Marietta police spokesman Officer Chuck McPhilamy said. “When possible, we’re being asked to handle things through a citation instead of a custodial arrest. I think that’s just common sense.”
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