Crime in quarantine: Steamboat police see surprising spike in calls amid COVID-19 pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Despite residents being restricted to their homes in recent weeks and tourism banned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Steamboat Springs Police Department has been busier than ever.
The Police Department saw a 30% increase in calls for service compared to this time last year, Chief Cory Christensen reported in an update to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Tuesday. That came as a surprise to Christensen, considering 2019 has been the busiest year on record for the law enforcement agency. With bars closed and visitation restricted, he figured this be would a comparatively quiet period for his officers.
“In a time when you think calls for service would be going down, we are seeing an increase,” Christensen said.
While the advent of public health complaints about COVID-19 explains part of the rise, it does not tell the whole story. The Police Department has fielded more than 170 such complaints, Christensen said, but those represent a fraction of the crime reports his agency has received in recent weeks.
From March 27, when Gov. Jared Polis issued the statewide stay-at-home order, until the end of April, theft reports are up 45% compared to the same time last year, he said. Bear calls have more than doubled. Harassment problems have spiked a whopping 280%, according to Christensen.
Meanwhile, Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has recorded a decrease in calls, about a 7% drop compared to this time in 2019, according to City Manager Gary Suiter.
“That is probably a reflection of the ski area closing,” he said of the decline, referring to the medical emergencies that add to the fire department’s caseload when Steamboat Resort is open.
Public health complaints
The majority of the public health complaints the Police Department has received are not legitimate violations of any public health orders, Christensen explained. They arise either from confusion about what the orders restrict or are the result of overzealous citizen policing. He recalled one report a resident made about six children playing in a driveway. In another call, a man said two teenagers were at a skate park.
“These are some of the things we are responding to,” he said.
As for the rise in other calls, Christensen thinks quarantine is largely to blame. With people cooped in their homes, particularly in shared spaces like condominium and apartment complexes, frustrations can grow and lead someone to call the police. Complaints about noise, for instance, have increased 83% compared to last year.
“Now that you’re home and you hear (neighbors) more often, it can be annoying,” Christensen said.
These stressful times have been polarizing for many, he added, which could lead people to feel harassed, threatened or more confrontational than normal.
Upward trends for other crimes have been a cause for greater concern among local law enforcement. Since the beginning of the pandemic, officials worried how the long periods of quarantine may exacerbate issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In a news release published April 22, the Colorado Department of Human Services explained how the stay-at-home order could be a precursor for such crimes.
“Isolation is a primary tool used by abusers to exercise power and control over a survivor,” the department said in the release. “Unfortunately, abusers may manipulate physical distancing public health practices to prevent the survivor from seeking help based on fear of the abuser and now the fear of contracting the virus or violating a law.”
For that reason, the state permitted survivors of domestic violence to forego the stay-at-home order if they needed to seek help or find temporary, safe housing.
Earlier in April, the United Nations called for urgent action in what U.N. Chief António Guterres called a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence.”
Locally, crisis calls to Advocates of Routt County more than doubled for the month of March compared to last year, according to Executive Director Lisel Petis. In April, the sexual assault and domestic violence support organization recorded another increases in crisis calls. Both months also saw increases in contacts with survivors, according to Petis.
She acknowledged it is hard to get an accurate picture of how the issue has changed under the public health restrictions, given that March and April of last year saw unusually low numbers in crisis calls. The organization also typically gets calls from visitors, so the ban on tourism could also be skewing those numbers.
Numbers aside, Petis has noticed current clients with Advocates feeling more stressed amid the pandemic. She also has seen an impact to the severity of assault and domestic violence calls.
For instance, on March 27, just three days after the stay-at-home order took effect, the Oak Creek Police Department received a report of a man holding a woman hostage at a house in Oak Creek. With the help of a drone, officers were eventually able to rescue the woman and take the man into custody, according to Chief Ralph Maher.
In light of these issues, Chief Christensen said he was proud of local law enforcement officials who put themselves at risk in the line of duty. Adding to the danger of potentially violent people is the threat of contracting COVID-19 while responding to a call.
As Christensen said, his officers also are wives, husbands and parents who must take extra precaution to keep themselves and their families safe during the pandemic.
“I am thankful every day for their service,” Christensen said.
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