Coronavirus, Sacramento-area shutdown slowing crime — what police say can help keep it down

The numbers aren’t firm, not yet, but law enforcement across the Sacramento region are encouraged. Crime is down, officers say, in the days since the coronavirus pandemic altered life for the hundreds of thousands they serve in the region.

In Elk Grove, Officer Jason Jimenez is seeing a slight decrease in calls for service and crime reports, though he cautions signs of a downtrend are preliminary. Lt. Paul Doroshov is seeing much the same in Davis; in West Sacramento, Sgt. Eric Angle estimates property and violent crime are down roughly 15 percent from the same period one year ago.

“It’s down during this time, influenced by people being home and staying home,” Angle said Tuesday.

In Sacramento County, another striking sign: “There hasn’t been a homicide for nearly a month now, which is pretty remarkable,” Sacramento County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tess Deterding said Tuesday afternoon.

In Sacramento County, which usually averages more than 30 homicides a year according to FBI crime reporting data, sheriff’s officials are still gathering data, but said they have noticed a marked decrease in assaults and other violent crime since shelter-at-home orders took hold. Home burglaries and thefts in the county area are also in decline, Deterding said, likely attributable to more people being home.

California is entering the second week of a statewide order to shelter in place to bend the curve of the fast-moving virus that causes COVID-19 and to help hospitals steel for the surge of cases to come. But crime doesn’t stop, even during a pandemic. To alter the crime arc in their cities, police are looking to their communities — at home in greater numbers than ever before — to help them prevent crime before they get the call.

“No one knows their neighborhood better than the people who live in it. We can’t be everywhere at the same time, so they’re the second part of the team,” Jimenez said Tuesday. “That’s where we call on the community to help us to send a message to the criminal element that this is not a neighborhood they want to be in.”

That teamwork has become easier, the Elk Grove officer said, with neighbor-driven networks like Next Door; and doorbell surveillance such as Ring, allowing neighbors to share information while providing a valuable tool for law enforcement, if needed.

“That’s the most important piece — that line of communication,” Jimenez said. “It’s a cliche, ‘When you see something, say something,’ but that fits here. There are more people at home than ever before. We count on them to be our eyes and ears.”

Elk Grove police also stress residents practice the “9 p.m. routine,” the nightly home and car security check of removing valuables from vehicles, turning on exterior lights and locking gates and doors before turning in at night.

“It’s all about trying to eliminate the opportunity. These are crimes of opportunity and ‘9 p.m.’ removes that opportunity,” Jimenez said.

Balancing health and safety

That has perhaps become more important as officers and deputies go about their daily work in the shadow of a pandemic, keeping an eye out for trouble while trying to steer clear of the virus.

No area law enforcement agency has reported any instances of coronavirus infection as of Wednesday, but most officers have been equipped with personal protective equipment since last week, many officials told The Sacramento Bee. Many already incorporated social distancing tactics into practice as part of their daily jobs.

Police in West Sacramento have adjusted their patrol schedules to work more hours through the day, but allow officers more time off and away from potential exposure, Angle said. In Davis, “we are being cautious,” Doroshov said, balancing public safety and officers’ health, directing minor calls for service online.

The same level of service is being met, officials around the region said. And, as anxious residents crowd supermarkets and club stores to stock up on food and supplies, police and deputies are increasing their visibility at stores and on the street.

Deputies are responding to stores more often for disputes over particular items as people try to stock up — or in some cases, hoard — for the weeks of isolation. Deterding said the sheriff’s office received a report of a person who walked out of a store with multiple packages of paper towels without paying before driving off in a Maserati.

A deputy also responded to a grocery store in the last week to settle a fight between two people arguing over the last gallon of milk, she said.

In Elk Grove, police units have been stationed in the parking lots of busy shopping centers and those now largely vacant as businesses shut down while residents shelter in place.

“The priority for us has not changed: the protection of life and property,” Jimenez said. “But we’re asking our officers to be that extra presence (in parking lots) and also where businesses have been closed. We’re also asking our folks to drive through neighborhoods to be that presence.”

Sacramento Police have stepped up enforcement in business districts with a keen eye toward businesses shuttered by stay-home orders, said Officer Karl Chan, a police spokesman. Sheriff’s patrols are also stepping up in areas with large numbers of closed businesses.

“That’s an obvious target for us and we’re working really hard to be present in those business districts,” Deterding said. But business owners can play a role, too. Proper lighting around the entire business and security cameras — even if they are fake — are a “huge deterrent,” Deterding said.

“Everything that you can think of that would possibly make a thief think ‘This is harder that it’s worth,’ then the better off you are,” she said.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
Molly Sullivan covers crime, breaking news and police accountability for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.