Reports of crimes, which dropped during the first weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, are trending back upward in three Midpeninsula cities, daily police records show.
Thefts in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park have surpassed pre-pandemic numbers in recent weeks, according to police records.
The increase comes after each city reported some of its lowest numbers of criminal activity this year, based on data compiled from their daily police logs.
Prior to the stay-at-home order, from Feb. 12 to 18, the three police agencies responded to and reported 363 cases, ranging from car accidents and drunk drivers to auto burglaries and other theft-related incidents.
A month later that number dropped 52%. Mountain View, Palo Alto and Menlo Park police officers collectively responded to 173 calls that warranted a written police report.
Police logs show that each city experienced record-low crimes for 2020 during the first weeks of the shutdown.
Katie Nelson, a public information officer for Mountain View Police Department, explained that after the stay-at-home order, calls for service went down.
"Because calls for service are down, that means generally reports taken are down and then booking arrests are also down," she said.
In the week of April 1, Mountain View had 75 police reports — a 50% decrease from the week of March 11. Part of this significant drop can be attributed to a reduction in collisions involving vehicles.
In both January and February, the city reported about 50 vehicular collisions that came with major, minor and no injuries. But as roads cleared of nonessential travel in March, just 33 accidents were reported. That number was slashed in half in April, when 17 collisions were reported — none involving major injuries.
Palo Alto and Menlo Park saw their sharpest dip in reported police cases in the week of March 25, with 38 and 23 cases, respectively. Compared to the week of March 11, that's around a 52% decrease for Palo Alto and about a 74% decrease for Menlo Park.
It's important to note that the data only includes cases that agencies decided rose to the level of a written report, using their own criteria. It does not include every "call for service" the departments received.
Still, Nelson could attest that there was a decrease in calls for Mountain View and that it spoke to the collective effort residents were making to stay at home.
Thefts take a dip just before shutdown
The trends in theft-related crimes — including petty and grand thefts, thefts from auto, commercial burglaries, financial crimes and identity theft, among others — are less clear cut. Each agency experienced lows during the shutdown, but the overall downward trends began prior to the local health directives.
Collectively, the three Midpeninsula cities saw a peak in theft crimes the week of Feb. 12, with 135 cases. Afterward, the number immediately began a steep descent — weeks before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Magnus Lofstrom, a policy director of criminal justice at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied crime in major California cities during the pandemic, said one explanation for the early drop could be attributed to work-from-home protocols instituted in early March. (By March 6, some of the largest employers in the region, including Facebook and Google, told employees to work from home.)
Low numbers of theft crimes vary by city, but all dips occurred during the stay-at-home order. Mountain View reported just 25 cases during the week of April 1.
"Overall, criminal activity is down in our city." Nelson said. "We are still seeing property crimes — things like catalytic converter thefts, commercial burglaries — those are still happening, but overall things are a little bit slower, which I think is probably because of the health order."
Palo Alto experienced its biggest drop in the week after the health order was mandated, with 12 cases.
Menlo Park statistics reveal hardly any shift that coincides with the pandemic's timeline — although reported cases dipped to a low of seven in the week of April 8. Part of it may have to do with changes in reporting methodologies. (Nicole Weber, public information officer for the Menlo Park Police Department, noted that the department recently began to process more online cases, which generates a case number that goes into the daily records.)
Another cause could be that crime just naturally fluctuates.
"We want to be cautious in interpreting and reading too much into the swings in reported crimes, because there are always swings in reported crimes," Lofstrom said. "But nonetheless they're very informative."
Santa Clara County's Office of the District Attorney found that overall crime was down 42% between March 16 and April 24 when compared to the same period in 2019.
But not all theft crimes decreased. Commercial burglaries remained constant, District Attorney Jeff Rosen reported during a County Supervisors meeting on May 5.
"Residential burglaries are down — more people are home," Rosen said. "Commercial burglaries have remained the same — many businesses have been closed and those are targets of opportunity."
Not all officers attest to any notable shifts in crime possibly brought on by the coronavirus.
Sgt. Craig Lee, a field training officer for the Palo Alto Police Department who regularly handles case reports, said there was "nothing remarkable about shelter-in-place."
"From a patrol aspect and watching the reports and calls for service ... there's no significant trends that I personally have seen across any sort of offenses or other types of calls for service," Lee said. "I wouldn't say there is a downturn of anything based on a lower amount of reports."
Domestic violence and disturbance cases also varied by agency.
Menlo Park police experienced a higher volume of domestic violence calls in the first three weeks of sheltering-in-place when compared to the same period last year, according to The Almanac, Palo Alto Online's sister website, The Almanac.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff's office saw a 46% increase in domestic disturbance calls after March 16, according to the article. Assistant County Sheriff Ken Binder said that included calls that had potential for domestic violence.
In addition, the Victims Services Unit of the Santa Clara County district attorney's office experienced a rise in calls for domestic violence after an initial low in the first few weeks of the health order. Referrals for physical child abuse and neglect also increased along with cases filing criminal charges.
"We know that shelter-in-place is not safe if you're living with your abuser," Rosen said. "And we know that this is the kind of crime, as underreported as it is, is still seeing these levels of reports because people are still being attacked by the people they thought and hoped that they could trust."
Palo Alto and Mountain View did not experience notable upticks in domestic violence calls or reports, according to the departments' public information officers.
But the case remains, at least for Palo Alto: "People are still going to jail; people are still being issued citations; officers are still out there in the field engaging out citizenry, responding to calls for service and conducting our investigations," Lee said.
Health order violations
Crime levels may vary for each city, but one thing that has increased for all agencies in the Midpeninsula are calls about people violating health order.
Recently, Rosen's office created a hotline for complaints and concerns about the stay-at-home orders, so law enforcement agencies don't drown in calls. Rosen called it "flattening the law enforcement curve."
Rosen reported that his office fielded around 6,000 calls in recent weeks. But that hasn't stopped watchful residents of the Midpeninsula from calling their local police departments.
Two areas of calls that have increased for Palo Alto, according to department spokeswoman Janine De la Vega, were complaints about speeding vehicles and health order violations.
"The majority of these calls involve routine gardening and residential construction complaints," De la Vega said. "While public health orders can be enforced criminally, that is a measure of absolute last resort for the Palo Alto Police Department."
Menlo Park and Mountain View police officers are using the same approach in response to the new set of calls about health order violations — many of which involve complaints against gardeners, landscapers or construction workers.
"Our goal really is education as opposed to enforcement because that has been working," Nelson said.
Even as San Mateo County public health officials began to enforce face coverings on April 17, Weber said that her department has not handed out citations or fines to Menlo Park residents without masks, choosing an educational approach instead.
As the Midpeninsula enters the third month of sheltering-in-place, data from the three cities point to another new shift during the pandemic — a rebound in police calls and theft-related incidents.
Police reports show that thefts in the region have surpassed pre-pandemic numbers.
In the week of April 22, there were 58 theft-related cases in Mountain View, 35 in Palo Alto and 22 in Menlo Park. For Mountain View, that's accompanied by an increase in commercial burglaries: 27 in April compared to 13 reported in the previous three months combined.
One possible explanation for the recent uptick following weeks of a downward trend?
"Probably the weather, if I had to be honest," Nelson said.
"We typically see seasonality in crimes, and when the weather is cold and rainy, fewer people are out and that means that there are fewer potential victims and fewer potential perpetrators," Lofstrom said. "Especially in this environment where people have been sheltered in place for a long time, there is that sense of urgency of getting back out again."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.