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Social distancing cuts crime

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2020 9:17:41 PM
Modified: 4/2/2020 9:17:30 PM

HARTFORD — As many Upper Valley residents finish up their second week of isolation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, police say they’re beginning to see a reduction in criminal activity.

But, despite the downturn, some worry that the weeks ahead might see a spike in more violent cases at home.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu both issued stay-at-home orders last week to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The orders closed down all non-essential businesses in the area and required people to stay at home unless traveling for essential purposes.

Since then, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said his department has experienced fewer calls overall.

Over the past two weeks Hartford police received 132 calls, which is significantly less than the 211 calls they received during the same two-week period in 2019, Kasten said. Even during a winter storm last week –— an event that usually garners a “significant number” of calls about car accidents — the department received only two, he said.

And the nature of the calls has shifted as well.

“As people have begun to police themselves, we’re seeing fewer calls regarding altercations, disputes, disturbances and even people in crisis,” Kasten said Wednesday.

He said police are trying to keep criminal activity to a minimum, by “increasing presence and visibility” around the stores that are still open, the neighborhoods where people might be cooped up at home and high-risk intersections.

In New Hampshire, Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said he is beginning to see a similar trend.

“It’s a little quieter out there. There’s less opportunity for crime,” he said.

Like Kasten, Mello said his officers are trying to increase their presence in the areas of the city that are still highly trafficked, such as the rail trails, and the Route 12A corridor, which Mello said has “groups of people congregating” at spots like Walmart and the grocery stores.

The reduction in crime may be due to several factors, according to Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway, who noted that his office has also experienced a similar trend.

He said some police departments are focused more on “exercising discretion” when it comes to pursuing lower-level offenses, but the larger reason could just be that residents themselves are trying to cut down on activity.

“Our community members are rising to the challenge and treating each other well,” he said.

While the response so far has been largely positive, police and prosecutors are concerned that the longer the isolation directives stretch on, the more they may see calls about domestic violence incidents.

“We’re concerned for people who are not able to leave abusive relationships because they feel like they’re additionally trapped because of these orders,” said Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough.

He said his office has been working with WISE Upper Valley, a nonprofit that gives support to victims of domestic violence, on prepations for a potential uptick in domestic cases.

Peggy O’Neill, executive director of WISE, said the organization is bracing for the increase, which she said is likely after families are confined in a home together.

“What survivors are telling us is that it’s harder to predict the behavior of their abusers,” she said.

But the group is also concerned that some of the resources survivors seek out — like coffee shops and libraries, which have phone and internet access — are no longer available to them during the isolation. As a result, it may be harder for survivors to get help from WISE or from other family and friends.

O’Neill said the organization is still fully staffed throughout the day, and they’re working on “additional access for remote advocacy.”

But for WISE, police, and many others, the long-term effects the isolation may have on domestic cases — and other violent crime — has yet to be seen.

“I think we’re still in the early stages as to the disruptions we’ll see from COVID-19,” Goodenough said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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