Local arrests down during pandemic

But police still on the job with added precautions

by April Emig

Police are still on the beat on the mean – and ghost-town quiet – streets of Duluth. Photo by April Emig.

It seems straightforward enough: more people staying at home leads to less crime and, consequently, less arrests.  

“Reduced interactions are contributing to fewer arrests, period,” said St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman. “The other thing that is helping keep our population lower than usual is the work of Arrowhead regional corrections court and field staff (probation and supervised release agents). They’re working intensely to ensure that every inmate that is a good candidate for intensive pretrial release, electronic monitoring or other forms of supervised release are utilized to the fullest.”

There were 25,431 calls made to dispatch between March 28 and May 17 this year. The same time period in 2019 saw 34,179 calls. This reduction wasn’t equal across all incident types, though. One of the biggest decreases has been in traffic stops, with 78% fewer calls.

“We have instructed officers to limit direct contact and interactions with individuals,” said Ingrid Hornibrook, Public Information Officer for the Duluth Police Department. “So traffic calls have gone down.”

And with schools closed down, there is less interaction between students and their educational support system.

“There’s less mandated reporting by social workers and others, meaning a decrease in reports of child neglect and predatory offenders,” Hornibrook said.

Calls to dispatch to report a neglected child have decreased by 74% since this time last year, though that doesn’t necessarily translate to a decrease in the crime itself.
As far as incidents that have seen an increase in calls, reporting of college parties went up. The local colleges moved spring semester classes online, leaving many students quarantined in apartments with their roommates. Notably, there was an increase for calls of non-college parties, too.

Another increase in dispatch has been for business checks, which went from 187 in 2019 to 328 in 2020. The closure of many stores has resulted in a higher need for surveillance with the increased risk of burglary.

“We’re still out doing the work and interacting with people in the ways we can,” said Hornibrook.

But increases of these types of interactions don’t lead to an increase in arrests. In fact, the department has worked to lower the arrest rate in an attempt to limit the jail population and mitigate any potential spread of the virus. “It is much easier to do this when our inmate count is low than when it isn’t,” said Sheriff Litman. “Bottom line is more discretion is being employed now while keeping a careful eye on not jeopardizing public safety.”

As of May 23, 131 of the St. Louis County Jail’s 197 beds were filled.
According to a report by the CDC, “correctional and detention facilities face challenges in controlling the spread of infectious diseases because of crowded, shared environments and potential introductions by staff members and new intakes.”

The jail is taking proper precautions based on both the CDC recommendations and instruction provided by Essentia Health. They’ve ended visitations from the general public as well as professional visits. Inmate movement has been reduced by using video technology in the courts for arrangements and hearings.

In addition, employees are screened when they show up for their shifts and detainees are screened at booking. This involves questionnaires and temperature readings. Space has been created to allow for necessary quarantines.

While the arrests have gone down, they haven’t gone away. There are still mandatory bookings for felony warrants and violent crimes. Sheriff Litman said the goal is to ensure “that the only people being booked at the St. Louis County jail are those that are a danger to themself or others or would fail to appear for their scheduled court appearances.”

And not every arrest needs to result in jail time. If an officer feels that an individual will not be a threat to the public or to themselves, they can give a cite and release.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean police officers are basing their citations on whether someone will be detained.

“The crime that an individual is charged or cited for is based upon the elements of the crime, not on whether or not they will be booked at the jail,” Litman said.
As far as mitigating risk on the scene, officers are instructed to wear appropriate personal protective equipment when responding to calls, ranging from gloves and masks to Tyvek suits. Squad cars are disinfected before and after each shift and any time an individual is transported.

“All our decisions are based on how we can best keep our officers, their families, and the community safe,” said Hornibrook.

And there is one crime that has yet to be reported in Duluth: violating stay at home orders.

“We’ve been very lucky with the cooperation that we’ve gotten from citizens being compliant with the stay at home order,” said Hornibrook.

Now, as the state begins to open back up, both the crime and arrest rates will likely increase.

“With the removal of the Governor’s stay at home order and the loosening of restrictions, people are moving about more,” Litman said. “Consequently, our inmate population is increasing as a result of more bookings.”