Crime in L.A. looked far different during pandemic

When Los Angeles went silent in March 2020 amid citywide lockdown orders, so too did reports of many types of crimes.

Among the most notable dips, law enforcement officials say, were reports of child abuse and domestic violence. That didn’t mean there were fewer abuse victims.

In fact, advocates say, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic trapping people in their homes meant more victims were sequestered with their abusers for longer periods of time: Researchers with the National Domestic Violence Hotline said calls decreased 6% that month compared to the same time the year before. Abuse reports to LAPD reflected an even steeper decline, falling by more than a third that month.

But while reporting to services like hotlines returned to normal in April, and actually surged above the average, crime reports still weren’t making it to police. For all of 2020, reports of child and spousal abuse are down more than 10.5% in L.A.

And that’s a sign public services cut off during the pandemic aren’t reaching victims who still need support.

“We know that most crime is underreported,” said LAPD Chief Michel Moore. “Sexual assaults and family violence fall into that category.”

Moore told reporters the pandemic shutdowns meant an “absence of schools, an absence of rec centers,” where vulnerable children were more likely to have someone outside their home watching over them.

“That’s interfering with victims having a place that we can investigate what’s happening and protect them,” he said.

Crime reports, or the lack of them, have signaled immense changes to daily life during the pandemic, shaping what kinds of crimes are committed and how police respond.

A peek at LAPD’s near-year-end crime statistics show a number of wild shifts. Motor vehicle thefts increased more than 35% in 2020 compared to 2019. That’s at least 3,200 more cars and trucks stolen. But many of those vehicles were quickly recovered, most not that far from where they were initially stolen.

LAPD theft detectives said the suspects in these cases found cars unattended and unlocked, jumped inside and took them for a quick ride, just to get from one place to another. Then they dumped the cars and disappeared.

That happened all over the city. Lt. Bruce Hosea, a detective who works with a regionwide vehicle thefts task force, said in August the map of car theft reports “looked like a shotgun blast.”

It’s not entirely clear why there were so many more car thefts during the pandemic. Hosea said it’s possible the rise just showed there were more cars available, with keys left inside for long stretches.

Other types of crimes fell, in some cases just as dramatically. Personal thefts fell nearly 34%. Fewer people on the streets meant fewer opportunities for potential thieves, LAPD officials said.

With stores closed, robberies fell by 17.3%. But shuttered businesses also presented easy pickings for some burglars later on in the pandemic.

Moore said a huge decrease in home burglaries sent all types of burglaries tumbling. But burglaries have picked up in the second half of 2020, with more stores being targeted. In total, burglaries are down 1.5% across the city.

Other trends were clear right away. The city saw an alarming increase in shooting violence over the summer. Now, at least 336 people have been killed in L.A. in 2020. That would be a 36% increase from the year before, and wipes out the historic lows in homicides the city saw in 2018 and 2019.

Police Commission President Eileen Decker called the rise “an enormous tragedy for the city” when the killings rose past 300 earlier this year, the first time since 2009.

Much of the violence has been tied to gangs, Moore said, but the stresses of the pandemic have likely contributed to killings nationwide. Other large cities across the country have also seen similar increases in homicides — in New York City, homicides are up 41%, according to NYPD.

The violence is another example of intervention workers being cut off from the communities where they might try to stem retributive shootings, Moore said.

“Those intervention workers would generally be at hospitals, at bedsides of victims, working to quell further acts of retaliation,” the chief said. “That’s not happening today.”

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