Some crimes may decline, others spike during virus crisis


Anniston Police Department headquarters on West 13th Street

Anniston police Chief Shane Denham, who was driving Wednesday while talking to a reporter, said his surroundings were “eerily quiet.” 

Denham said Wednesday it seemed that things had slowed down at the Anniston Police Department due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he couldn’t say for sure how much crime rates reflected that.

“Generally, I’d say people are behaving,” Denham said Wednesday. “People seem to be focused on one particular topic, and crime isn’t it.”

On Friday, Denham said, things had stayed quiet until early that morning, when police were called to the scene of a fatal stabbing outside a Constantine Homes apartment complex. Sgt. Kyle Price said that was the second murder in Anniston this year. 

If the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, which has upended the familiar patterns of daily life for so many is to have a similar effect on criminal behavior, it may take some time to see it. Meagan Cahill, a researcher at the RAND corporation, said it will likely take about a month since the virus first hits a community for locals to see how the pandemic has affected crime rates in the area.

“They tend to be relatively volatile over small periods of time,” Cahill said. “A lot of the time, you can’t see if it’s going up or it’s going down until you look at it retrospectively.”

How that change happens, Cahill said, is dependent on the community. With more people staying inside their homes, she said, there will likely be a downturn in interpersonal crimes and street crimes such as pickpocketing and robbery.

“A lot of these crimes are crimes of opportunity,” Cahill said. “If there’s far fewer people on the street, there are far fewer people to select a target from.”

Sex crimes involving acquaintances or — even more rarely — strangers may also decline.

“People might not be going out on dates with people they meet on apps as much,” Cahill said. “People might not go to house parties as much.”

However, she said, domestic crimes like domestic violence or child abuse could increase.

“If people have been spending more time in the house, that could lead to more tension, which could lead to more aggression and violence,” Cahill said.

She said that concerns her, because it makes crimes that already often happen behind closed doors even harder to spot.

“It’ll be a lot harder for others to intervene or notice when something is wrong,” Cahill said.

Denham said Friday’s homicide was the result of domestic violence. Authorities told The Star that Tomekia Wilson, 28, stabbed 29-year-old Quonisha Royal numerous times on the right wrist and in the back. Royal died around 2 a.m. at Regional Medical Center while police questioned Wilson. Police said the two had been dating before Royal’s death.

“They’d been together for a while,” Denham said Friday. “They’d had issues before.”

Denham said it was an isolated incident, and it could have happened at any time.

Cahill said she wasn’t sure how the pandemic would affect homicides, because so many different things can motivate them.

Denham said he didn’t know what to expect, as he’d never seen anything like the pandemic. Earlier this month, he said, the department’s emergency plan for the “worst-case scenario” was to assign remaining officers to either a day or night shift with no investigative capabilities.

 On Thursday, he said, all Anniston officers were healthy and responding to calls in a timely manner. 

Jacksonville police Chief Marcus Wood said he’s also seen no change in his city’s crime rate. On one hand, Wood said, he’s seen more people come into the city to shop as many people stocked up on groceries and other necessities. But Jacksonville State University students have left the city in droves since the school switched classes online.

Because the pandemic struck around spring break, Wood said, his department plans to prepare for what it normally expects at this time of year: a small rise in petty crimes, like car break-ins.

Wood said on Wednesday he hadn’t seen such an uptick yet.

Based on crime stats from February compared to last year, Denham said, the local crime rate had already been decreasing.

“Last year, we did really good, and I was surprised we had a dip,” Denham said.

To keep everyone healthy, he said, police are now taking reports over the phone and not responding to “unnecessary” calls, such as medical 911 calls where no one is acting aggressively or calls from people with mental problems who frequently contact police.

“We’re just working off the fly,” Denham said Wednesday. “We’ll deal with whatever comes along. Hopefully, everyone continues to behave.”