The streets and roads of the Capital Region may seem quiet with businesses closed during the novel coronavirus pandemic, but there’s a lot going on just below the surface, from what police agencies across the region are reporting.
As many analysts predicted, the stresses of social isolation and job displacements are taking their toll on the public, with calls to respond to domestic disputes up, even as the number of traffic tickets being written is down.
“Everybody is just a little tense out there,” said Saratoga Springs Police Lieutenant Robert Jillson. “People have been cooped up with the same person for two months now.”
So far in 2020, Jillson, who is the Saratoga Springs police spokesman, said the number of domestic dispute calls have increased from 46 to 71 — though some of those calls are resolved without an arrest, while some resulted in arrests.
“We’re seeing a slight increase in our domestics, people are inside and getting itchy to get out and do stuff,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael H. Zurlo, who said the number of calls coming into the county emergency dispatching center in Milton — between 7,000 and 8,000 per month — is about the same as last year.
Glenville Police Chief Steve Janik agreed that domestic calls are up, and said police are trying to plan for what could happen as economic activity begins to resume in coming weeks, and concerned that it could lead to a burst in activity.
“These are unprecedented times,” Janik said. “I have never experienced anything like this before in my 30-year career. Right now, things are eerily quiet. Sometimes you have the feeling that it’s like shaking a Pepsi can.”
“We respond to a lot of domestic issues, and I’m seeing an uptick in mental health issues,” Janik said. “There is a lot of stress out there. There are people cooped up in the home, a lot of stress over being out of work and not knowing when they will be going back.”
Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said last month that New York State Police have seen a 15-20 percent increase in domestic violence calls across the state during the pandemic – but some authorities think the true number is higher, thinking that some domestic violence victims may not be able to find the privacy to make a call for help.
When business closings, stay-at-home orders and other measures to try to stop spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 took effect across the country in mid-March, some analysts thought that would result in crime going down, since more people would stay indoors, and the bars where drunken rowdiness can break out and social mores break down were closed. To some extent, that has proven true.
“Our DWIs are down because people are staying home and not coming downtown,” Jillson said, referring to Saratoga Springs’ restaurant-and-bar scene.
But the steep spike in unemployment since March has also created concerns about thefts and other property crimes increasing. So far, that hasn’t been borne out, at least locally.
Fulton County Sheriff Richard C. Giardino said the sheriff’s office typically sees an increase in burglary reports in the spring as seasonal residents return to re-open residences that were broken into over the winter, but the number is about the same as last year. “I was expecting there to be more of an increase,” he said.
What the department has seen are increases in disorderly conduct, domestic dispute and mental health calls, he said.
“Mental health has gone from around one call a day to two a day, which can be everything from drug overdoses that appear to be a suicide attempt to a suicide threat,” Giardino said. “That’s understandable. A lot of people are depressed. They don’t know when they’ll be going back to work.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith said the same issues are cropping up in that county.
“We can attribute it to ‘New York on pause” and not being able to go out and do what they usually do, and being cooped up at home. Sometimes there’s drugs and alcohol involved. There’s a lot of anxiety out there. We gotta try to all do the right thing and work together.”
With less traffic on the Glenville roads, Janik in March directed his officers to reduce vehicle and traffic stops, to reduce interactions that could spread the coronavirus. But recently, he said he personally has noticed an increase in speeding and aggressive driving, and the department is now planning a phased-in return to enforcement — probably initially giving many people warnings rather than tickets.
“Our intention is to now continue toward more vehicle and traffic enforcement in areas in which we are seeing complaints,” he said. “We will start increasing enforcement, but not necessarily writing tickets. We’re trying to develop a plan or procedure of making things a little more comfortable for the public, the officer starting with a general conversation about why they’re wearing a mask and safety.”
The Glenville Walmart normally generates about 300 larceny arrests per year, Janik said — but during the pandemic, the handling of shoplifters is being left to store security, who gather the necessary information and send it to town police, who can then mail the suspect a summons.
Such enforcement efforts are complicated, however, by the fact the court system is currently closed to all but emergency cases. That means people given tickets won’t have a court appearance date until sometime in the unknown future.
In some ways, things are starting to trend toward normalcy as spring has arrived. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “pause” order expires on Friday, and he has indicated that he will allow construction and manufacturing to resume in some parts of upstate.
In downtown Saratoga Springs, the arrival of spring has meant more people coming downtown, even if there’s relatively little to do other than walk the sidewalks. This past Monday, though, police restored their parking enforcement officers, after the fire department said poorly or illegally parked vehicles were creating problems for fire vehicles on some narrow streets.
The overall number of incident calls logging by the Saratoga police has risen, but a large part of that is because a call record is created when officers on their own initiate a building check — inspecting an empty office building for signs of illegal entry, for example. “It’s a lot of businesses being closed, and our guys and gals taking time to check an unoccupied building,” Jillson said.
The department has seen more mental health calls recently. “There’s just a lot of stressors out there,” Jillson said. “We’ll just have to see what happens and be prepared for whatever comes our way.”
Zurlo said the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office is seeing about the typical number of larcenies, including thefts from cars and burglaries. Meanwhile, he urged people to continue to wear face masks, wash their hands and maintain social distances.
“Hopefully we see some improvement in the next month; we’re not out of the woods yet,” Zurlo said.
Most agencies say they’re fielding a lot of complaints — a growing number over time — from callers complaining that people are having large gatherings without social distancing, or not wearing masks in public. Those calls may consume manpower, but no law enforcement leader said people are being ticketed.
“We look at it as more of an educational thing,” said Smith, the Montgomery County sheriff.
In Schenectady, where Mayor Gary R. McCarthy has said police layoffs may be necessary if the city does not get fresh federal financial aid, the police department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.