The Mercury News Weekend
COVID-19 drove down crime in the South Bay
Advocates continue to worry about plight of domestic violence victims
The COVID-19 pandemic that prompted an array of shelter-inplace and other movement restrictions in the South Bay had a marked effect on reported crimes, with figures from several cities aligning with broader trends showing almost acrossthe-board decreases in violent and property crimes.
There were some notable exceptions to the downward trends, particularly in San Jose, where the homicide total rose from 34 in 2019 to 44 in 2020,
after a fatal shooting was reported Thursday. And inside a projected 5% to 6% drop in property crimes is an increase in commercial burglaries.
And advocates continue to draw attention to the plight of those suffering from domestic violence, an already underreported crime they say has created excruciating scenarios given how the mortal dangers of the pandemic, and its economic impacts, have made it difficult for survivors to escape harmful environments.
“If you’re a low-wage worker and dealing with (abuse), it’s like a triple pandemic,” said Esther PeralezDieckmann, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence.
Based on the latest available figures, San Jose was on pace to record at least a 4% decrease in property crimes, though commercial burglaries were increasing modestly. The reasoning, police say, is intuitive: More people have been forced to stay home, decreasing opportunities for residential burglars who typically aim to avoid confrontation, but stores and businesses are unstaffed or less staffed because of lockdown orders.
That has been true in several cities that provided crime figures for this story: Mountain View is projected to register as much as a 13% decrease in property crimes, while Milpitas and
Sunnyvale were heading toward drops of 4% and 8% respectively. Data complied by Santa Clara police suggest that the property crime decrease will be more than 20% and could be as much as 30%.
With v iolent cr ime, Mountain View is projected to decrease at least 9%, and Sunnyvale was looking at a 15% downturn in reported violence. One exception is Milpitas, where crime figures were trending toward a double- digit increase, based on an uptick in aggravated assault reports.
San Jose in 2020 presented a dichotomy with violent crime, heading toward a roughly 4% decrease in violence but a 22% rise in homicides from 34 to 44. It should be noted that the city’s yearly homicide totals are modest compared to similarly sized cities, and that 44 is above the median for the past decade.
SJPD homicide Lt. Brian Shab did not have a sure
fire explanation for why the city’s homicides would not be suppressed by a pandemic that drove down other crimes, but he surmised that the often rash nature of fatal assaults are a likely factor.
“A lot of times homicides are spontaneous events,” Shab said. “They come out of encounters where people were not planning on it turning into a homicide, but then it does.”
About one-fifth of the year’s homicides are being treated as gang-related, according to investigators. Shab added those occurred amid a backdrop in which city police are seizing illegal guns and ghost guns — firearms made from prefabricated parts that are often untraceable — multiple times a week, which he said is a dramatic shift from
when he joined the department two decades ago.
Domestic violence is difficult to measure by conventional metrics. In the first few months of the pandemic, figures were all over the place, with some Bay Area police agencies charting an increase in reports and others tallying decreases. The consensus is that the occurrences have increased, with experts like Peralez-Dieckmann drawing on their familiarity with the pathology of domestic violence as a guidepost.
“Our call level has returned. Violence is escalating, with more serious abuse. Maybe people were able to live with the situation, but now it escalated and they’re no longer feeling safe,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of safety planning if they don’t want to go
to shelter, and if we’re full, for how can they stay safe.”
Currently, there are 62 emergency shelter beds for domestic violence survivors in the county distributed between Next Door, the South County-based Community Solutions, YWCA Silicon Valley and Asian Americans for Community Involvement.
Pera lez-Dieck ma nn stressed that Next Door and its fellow support organizations remain open and can be reached 24 hours a day. Naturally, they have had to limit face-to-face visits when possible, and PeralezDieckmann said they have had to respond to COVID-19 scares and cases within her organization’s shelter, but that their protocols have held firm.
Under the umbrella of Next Door, Rose Martinez helps run El Comite de Mujeres Fuertes, a group made up of five domestic violence survivors who have turned their experiences into inspiration to conduct outreach in the greater Santa Clara County region. Prior to the pandemic, they were routinely handing out flyers and information cards, and holding workshops to increase domestic violence literacy among physicians and community advocates, with an trained eye on the Latino population to help people overcome cultural taboos with acknowledging and identifying abusive households.
With their reach restricted by COVID-19 safety concerns, Martinez says her group is pushing through, trying to reach people via Zoom and workshops with the improvised dual goal of educating people about both identifying and seeking help for domestic violence and busting myths about COVID-19.
The latter is especially important, Martinez said, because she’s gathered anecdotes about abusers exploiting pandemic fears as a means of control.
“We still need to get awareness out there, even with COVID limiting the way we get the information out, especially to the people who need it,” she said. “Anything we can do to get the word out there. For every person we reach, it’s one less person who has to go through the terror we went through.”