Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered us to stay home as much as possible.
But those committing various assortments of crimes during coronavirus?
“I don’t think they’re listening to the governor,” says Sgt. John Awai, a 29-year veteran of the Renton Police Department.
A couple of weekends ago, on March 28 and 29, Awai was out on his rotating 12-hour shift that goes from 2:30 in the afternoon to 2:30 in the morning.
It was a lot of the same old, same old. Traffic accident, theft, trespassing, a family argument that went haywire, a shoplifter.
Still, it is true that among the dour coronavirus statistics, a handful of crime numbers offers a nice change of pace.
Both Seattle police and the King County Sheriff’s Office say shoplifting, general theft and car prowls are way down.
Businesses in the Chinatown International District area have seen a spike in burglaries. Many of them are closed because of the pandemic.
SPD says in the last two weeks, 15 burglaries have been reported in that neighborhood, compared with three during the same time last year.
The police say they’ve met with business owners, with pointers that include use of alarms and cameras, exterior lights, leaving interior lights on so officers can see inside and applying security film to windows to hold them together when smashed, making it more difficult for a thief to easily enter.
As for crime statistics that have gone down, it’s easy to figure out why, says Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD spokesman.
“This is not surprising, considering the reduction of people out and about,” he says.
The numbers: Comparing this year with 2019, Seattle police say crime reports declined 15% from late February to early March.
Then, in the two weeks from early to mid-March, the decrease doubled to 30%.
The King County Sheriff’s Office has similar figures.
It says property crimes went down 26% in early to mid-March, when compared with the same period in 2019.
Good news, but…
Consider in the year to date ending this March 26, SPD took down 5,332 reports of basic theft, such as somebody stealing a bike or cellphone.
That’s 199 fewer theft reports than during the same stretch in 2019.
That’s still a hefty 5,000-plus theft reports. (Worldwide, according to an April 11 Associated Press story, the lockdowns have meant crime in many categories has plummeted: In Latin America, for example, “down to levels unseen in decades.”)
Certainly, for Awai and the 126 other officers on the force, some obvious things have changed since the outbreak.
A call comes into dispatch, says Awai, “And they are asking about if somebody is showing respiratory distress. The officers then know there might be COVID-19 exposure.”
The cops routinely wear nitrile blue gloves, and have plastic safety-type glasses and N95 masks ready, getting their name because they filter out 95% of the dust and mold in the air. They try to keep 6 feet between themselves and those they’re dealing with.
“That can be a little difficult sometimes, when you have to stand behind them to put handcuffs on,” says Awai.
Renton police say none of its officers have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The King County Sheriff’s Office says six of its deputies have tested positive, all self-quarantined. Seattle police declined to say if any officers have tested positive.
Awai, 55, says the thought of staying off the streets because of the coronavirus has never crossed his mind. “My first thought is to be there for my guys,” he says, meaning the officers under his command.
He’s talked about the risks of the virus with his wife, says Awai, but she’s a cop’s wife.
“We’ve been married for 32 years. She doesn’t dwell on it, because your life can end at any point,” he says. For privacy reasons, Awai asked that his wife not be named.
It is not homicides and aggravated assaults cops deal with regularly on a typical shift. (SPD and Renton police say reports of violent crime have stayed about the same between 2020 and 2019. The King County Sheriff’s Office says its reports of violent crime were down 24% in the first two weeks of March, but that likely is because a difference of a few reports can register as a big percentage.)
It is stuff like this:
On Friday and Saturday nights, part of the routine for Awai is to stop by South 180th Street, near the East Valley Highway, where other officers were keeping an eye on young men who like to race cars. The coronavirus wasn’t keeping them from hanging around a couple of gas station/convenience stores on the Kent side of 180th, out of reach of the Renton cops.
His stops that weekend last month included a guy hitting his female partner, “leaving some bruising.” The man is arrested.
Awai says he has seen a slight increase in domestic violence reports since the coronavirus outbreak. “All the bars are closed. They’re drinking at home. Things get verbal and heated, but not too much increase in physical stuff,” he says.
Awai says the bars being closed does mean he makes a lot fewer DUI stops.
A March 30 Seattle Times story says SPD logged 22% more domestic violence calls in the first two weeks of March, but that in most cases no arrests were made because officers found no crime had been committed.
Awai experienced such a call that weekend when an argument escalated between a father and son in a Latino family, For the sergeant, being fluent in Spanish (he learned the language when he spent two years in Mexico as a Mormon missionary) came in handy. Awai spent 20 minutes talking to the father and son, whom he has known for seven years. Things quieted down and Awai left.
The weekend patrol continued with Awai checking on transients hanging around St. Anthony Parish, somebody loitering outside the doorway of a downtown Renton business and a man stuck after driving his car off the road.
After his shift is over at 2:30 in the morning, Awai drives home, takes a shower and relaxes for an hour before going to bed. His wife is asleep.
Then, soon, it’ll be back to being out on patrol. The governor’s message skipped by a whole bunch of people.