PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The streets of Providence are mostly empty, the parks and mall are closed, restaurants can’t allow diners inside, and the nightclubs, strip clubs and bars are shuttered.
That shutdown of normal life has also led to a major drop in crime in the capital city, according to numbers reviewed by Target 12, and a subsequent shift in policing to the enforcement of COVID-19 civil orders.
From March 23 to April 19 of this year there were 39 violent crimes recorded, according to the Providence Police Department’s statistics. There were 83 violent crimes during the same four-week period last year.
That’s a drop of 53% in a category that includes shootings, stabbings and other aggravated assaults, murder, robbery (at gunpoint or otherwise) and sexual offenses.
“There’s just less opportunity for those inclined to commit criminal activity,” Col. Hugh Clements, the police chief, said in an interview. “Everything’s closed … there are less human interactions.”
Clements said the closure of nightclubs is a “huge” factor in the drop, since the city frequently sees violence — including gang activity — when the clubs let out in the early morning hours.
Another factor contributing to the drop according to Clements: less “officer-initiated activity,” like car stops and pedestrian stops, in an effort limit officers’ interactions with the public during the pandemic.
“That’s purposeful,” Clements said. “By design, we’re having less interaction with the community.” (11 officers out of about 450 on the force have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.)
Online reports have increased five-fold, according to Clements, as police ask citizens with non-emergency reports to file them online. The system existed before the coronavirus pandemic, but its use is being encouraged more now so that officers don’t need to respond in person if it’s not an emergency.
Property crime is down to a lesser extent — about 29% — and some individual crimes have remained steady in that category.
Burglaries, for example, are way down, with 48% fewer offenses during the four-week period this year compared to last year. But larcenies from a motor vehicle are only down by 11%, with 91 offenses compared to 102 in the same period last year.
“There are still a lot of petty thefts,” Clements said. “There’s less of an opportunity to break into houses because the homes are no longer unoccupied. However, there’s still opportunity for motor vehicle thefts and larcenies from motor vehicles as they are stationary and not being used.”
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Clements acknowledged that police could be missing some crimes if they aren’t stopping as many cars or pedestrians on the streets. But he said with fewer overall crimes happening, more officers can respond to each emergency and spend more time and attention on each call.
“Policing hasn’t stopped,” Clements said. “Recently we made five firearms arrests in one day.”
And there have been crimes perhaps spurred by the pandemic, like the theft of $15,000 worth of shoes at the empty Providence Place Mall in the middle of the afternoon just days after the shopping center was shuttered.
Clements said drug arrests are way down — the statistics show an 82% drop in total offenses — though it doesn’t mean drug dealing isn’t happening.
“Those who are truly addicted are still trying to find a way to get their drug of choice,” Clements said. “And the drug dealers are being crafty in getting that to them.”
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There has been one homicide in Providence so far this year — a man found dead in Roger Williams Park in March — which remains unsolved. By this time last year, there had been four homicides year-to-date in the capital city. (The homicide of two people whose bodies were found on Harris Avenue earlier this month was re-categorized as a Central Falls case, after detectives determined the murder happened in that city.)
With fewer crimes to investigate, many patrol officers have shifted their daily duties to enforcement of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus, such as the closure of parks and businesses.
“We have completely transformed and transitioned into COVID-19 policing,” Clements said.
Officers have been seen patrolling India Point Park, stopping people from parking in the lot or telling pedestrians to leave. So far, Clements said no citations have been issued for people violating the parks order, with officers focused on educating people about the new rules.
But there have been several violations issued to businesses that have had patrons inside despite closure orders. Clements said the violations have quieted down since Elorza’s orders were first put in place, but he said an unlicensed auto detailing business on Broad Street was issued a citation for operating over this past weekend.
The police department has made several emergency purchases during the pandemic, including for special contamination equipment for shared police cruisers, personal protective equipment like masks, and a contract with a hotel and catering company for officers on quarantine (no officers have taken advantage of the quarantine center yet.)
Clements said the extra expenses are expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.