While 2020 was a disaster in many respects, one of the few bright spots during the COVID-19 pandemic has been an overall decrease in crimes.
Much of that is attributable, obviously, to many residents sheltering in place or limiting activities outside the home, in light of public health guidelines. The current midnight to 5 a.m. curfew and, perhaps most significantly when it comes to a dramatic drop in DUIs or drunk in public arrests, restaurants and bars now cutting off alcohol service at 10 p.m., have done more than just curb the spread of the virus.
But the heads of Loudoun’s public safety agencies do not appear to be resting on their laurels with the good problem of a drop in crime.
“We haven’t slowed down at all in the service we provide our citizens,” said Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman.
While crime has dipped considerably—Chapman said part 1 crimes, or the most serious criminal offenses, were down 14% last year—the Sheriff said his department has used the opportunity to roll out some initiatives it hadn’t had the time to undertake previously. Those included a prescription delivery service for elderly residents, and a unique partnership with pizza establishments that offered delivery. As COVID has hamstrung departments and officers in being able to have direct, in-person outreach to the community, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office worked with local pizzerias to place fliers on the tops of pizza boxes that provided contact information for those needing behavioral health services and the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, for those who need to escape domestic violence situations. The fliers were printed in English and Spanish, and also included tips for staying safe during COVID and avoiding pandemic-related scams.
LCSO Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell said deputies also placed cards in stores that sell gift cards to educate managers and employees on how to spot residents who may be the victims of a scam, as many scammers request payment via Google Play or iTunes gift cards. The incidence of scams has continued to rise year over year, Chapman said.
Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown said “crimes of opportunity,” like online scams, extortion, identity theft and other computer crimes, were also on the rise.
“Our seniors are definitely targets,” Brown said. “A lot of times they don’t have access to Facebook to see our posts. We’ve got to be a little more attentive to how to reach out to the aged population. We’ve got to get a little more creative.”
Regrettably, both Chapman and Brown reported that one instance of crime was indeed on the rise in 2020—domestic violence. LCSO reported 670 domestic violence assault calls in 2020, up from 609 the previous year, or about a 10% increase. Both Chapman and Brown acknowledged that their agencies’ statistics or calls for service likely don’t represent the totality of domestic violence incidents, but they have stayed in close contact with LAWS and other community organizations to connect victims to resources. LCSO also has a dedicated Domestic Violence Unit that works directly with the county government, LAWS and other organizations.
Chapman said he is concerned about a recent rise in overdoses, which he attributes in some cases to isolation.
In some ways, Chapman believes pandemic conditions made his department operate more efficiently. With large-scale gatherings frowned upon if not altogether prohibited during the past year, LCSO moved its quarterly meetings online, has expanded its social media outreach, and online crime reporting has increased.
“We’ve actually in some ways become more efficient manpower-wise,” he said.
In Purcellville, Police Chief Cynthia McAlister reported a dramatic drop in crime. Within the town’s nearly 3.5-square-mile corporate limits, crime from January through the end of October dropped by nearly 27% to 223 criminal offenses occurring in those 10 months, compared with a total of 304 criminal offenses occurring in that same time period the year prior, according to the department’s November 2020 monthly report.
Most notable among the decline were the drops in family offenses, drunk in public cases, DUIs and narcotic-related events, down by 10 offenses, nine offenses, 30 offenses and 39 offenses, respectively.
Larceny offenses by the end of October 2020, however, were up by seven compared with the year through October in 2019.
With fewer people moving around amid the pandemic, there have been fewer crimes and fewer calls for service, McAlister said.
“The slower pace of the community in general clearly causes less impact on law enforcement resources because there’s less interaction with people,” she said. “In our situation, COVID probably subdued criminal activity.”
Although there’s less crime, Purcellville Police officers are still writing summonses, just not at the same levels they were before the pandemic hit.
By the end of October 2020, officers had written 207 less summonses than they had by the end of October 2019, for a total of 648.
McAlister said that’s because her officers have been weary of the virus, although they continue to do their jobs protecting the community as much as they healthily can.
“Are they hunting to pull people over and have that face-to-face contact with people? … they’re probably not,” she said. “They really slowed down in their proactive enforcement because of the unknown of COVID.”
McAlister also pointed out that the decreased number of written summonses could be a result of the department’s short staffing, with eight vacant positions.
The Leesburg Police Department does not make its annual crime statistics available until the spring, when Brown presents his annual report to the Town Council. The department submits its statistics to the Virginia State Police, which in turn reports them to the federal government. However, Brown did share that calls for service were down by roughly 12,677 compared to 2019. On average, over the past five weeks, calls for service are down between 22% and 28%, he said.
Brown said most crimes in town were down in 2020, some dramatically, including vehicle larcenies.
“With less people on the streets, if you’re on the streets shaking handles on a vehicle, you’re more likely to get caught,” he said.
Brown said the department has remained fully staffed since the pandemic began. He has been able to reassign the department’s six school resource officers to patrol or traffic management, since schools have been closed for the better part of the last year.
Despite the decline in criminal activity, Brown underscores the need for his department to remain proactive, rather than reactive, a practice he has often stressed to the Town Council.
“You can never fall short on proactive patrol,” he said.
Brown said his officers continued to check in with school staff members and administrators, even with schools closed and students home, along with the town’s day laborer population, at-risk youth and juveniles. Even throughout the pandemic, officers still delivered donated furniture, bicycles, and school supplies to families identified as in-need, he said.
Brown also said he was pleased with how his department responded to two large-scale protests in town in 2020, and expects that to be an ongoing endeavor for law enforcement locally and nationwide.
The Leesburg Police Department was on the forefront of pandemic preparedness, having implemented its policy development in regard to COVID-19 at the end of February. Since then, many of its popular programs and initiatives involving in-person contact with officers and staff have been discontinued. For a time, even the lobby was closed to the public to keep department staff safe.
Brown credits a significant amount of expert insight in helping the department craft a successful strategy for the past year.
“It took a lot of networking, Webex calls, Zoom calls with other chiefs, public safety officials, health officials, fire/rescue, physicians, and elected leaders to make sure we could continue to do what we do,” he said.
But, as the department has continued to be a model for community policing region-wide, Brown said he has been watching the metrics “like a hawk” in hopes that the department can eventually resume many of its popular services.
“I’m looking forward to a decrease in metrics, decrease in the positivity rate. In-person programs, and our daily interactions with the public, is what Leesburg was built off,” Brown said.
Reporter Patrick Szabo contributed to this report.