That’s Cox’s explanation for a startling drop in crime during the last ten months of 2020: from March through December, the five crime categories tracked on the Observer’s Crime Map fell 39 percent from the same period the year before.
Thank the pandemic. Cox believes the number of burglaries, robberies, sexual assaults and vehicle thefts dropped from 523 to 327 because “there’s very few things open.” Burglaries fell from 229 to 174 because “everybody’s home” and sexual assaults from 113 to 76 because “there’s no college campuses in session. There’s no bars.” Neither factor applies to vehicle thefts, but they were also down slightly, from 133 to 107–though thieves have lately been making up for lost time (see Crime Map, p. 19).
One category on the map was up: the city didn’t report a single homicide in the first ten months of 2019 but did have one last year. In March, two roommates fought over pandemic restrictions; one had a pry bar but the other had a handgun.
“That’s stir-craziness,” says Cox. “There’s no place to vent or to socialize. Alcohol sales had been through the roof,” creating “bars at home with no last call.” He thinks that’s also why one category not on the map–aggravated assault–rose. The AAPD didn’t track the pandemic specifically, but for the full year aggravated assaults were up 19 percent, from 155 to 184.
This isn’t the first time a deadly public health emergency had a public safety upside. Though the AAPD doesn’t have records that far back, other cities reported comparable reductions during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton concurs with Cox about the pandemic’s impact. But he also credits “having more services and programs available, more proactive things” that are helping troubled individuals before their problems escalate into crime. “That may be impacting what’s going on.”
“That seems to be the trend as far as arrests are concerned,” agrees Cox. “Actually, [in] a lot of cities, violent crime is up, and it’s up significantly. So there’s some weird trends going on right now.”
For his officers, “it’s been a long haul, and there is some fatigue,” Cox says. “They’re worried about their families. They’re worried about the future. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to say if the morale is going to be very, very high. But our role, our job, is to make sure that they stay focused and understand that we’re still here to serve the public.”
Cox was hired to reinvigorate community policing, and he’s still pushing it–“even though you can’t really physically be in close contact with people.” Building rapport is harder with everyone wearing masks, he notes, because “you can’t see people when they smile!”
When people aren’t wearing masks in settings where they’re required, the chief says, his officers are requesting compliance in a “respectful, polite way. It’s not this heavy-duty enforcement. It’s nothing like that–but they still do that because it helps to keep the community safe.”
Clayton says his deputies “are holding strong [and] continue to go deliver the service every day.” But he acknowledges that they feel the stress. “We’re like everybody else–tired of Covid, tired of the restrictions that go along with it.”
Clayton’s counterpart in Wayne County, Benny Napoleon, died of Covid in December. But Washtenaw County has had only a couple of cases. “We had one of our sergeants get really sick–he got pneumonia on top of it,” Clayton says. “We’ve been really, really fortunate. I say all of that while I am feverishly knocking on wood.”
Cox reports a similar experience and hope, in almost the same words: “We’ve had a few people get sick, but knock on wood everyone is certainly recovered.”
First responders are right behind healthcare providers in the vaccination line. Both Cox and Clayton got their first shots in January, and their officers were following as fast as supplies permitted. Aware that black Americans–‘including his own father–are more skeptical about the vaccine, Clayton shared a video of himself getting the shot to encourage everyone to get protected.
In January, new county prosecutor Eli Savit issued a flurry of press releases about new policies in his office, including an end to cash bail requests. “I’m looking forward to working with them,” Cox says, “as long as we have some dialogue and that they understand the impact” of the changes on police work.
Clayton says he and Savit are in “direct alignment” on how “the criminal legal system should move.” But, he adds, a policy is just “a piece of paper with words on it. It doesn’t come to life until you actually have to execute.
“I’ve said this numerous times, and I’ve said to him: I don’t have an issue with most of what you lay out,” Clayton continues. “I just have questions about how you’re going to execute it.
“I support it. I just support it in the most thoughtful strategic way that is inclusive of the entire system.”
“We have different roles,” says Cox. “My role here is really to protect the public. And when we see people offending and breaking the law, then we have to arrest them and bring them into the criminal justice system. And that ends our role.”