Pandemic-era policing: Fewer crimes, but signs of rising stress

by Juliette Rihl and Rich Lord

Since the first week of the pandemic-related shutdown, Pittsburgh police have seen the overall demand for their services, including investigations of theft, assault and harassment, decrease substantially.

Yet police responses to a variety of non-criminal events, including civil disputes and mental health emergencies, have increased, likely due to the stressors of staying at home.

PublicSource compared records of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police activity from the same dates — March 21 through April 20 — in 2019 and 2020. Police documented 37% fewer incidents during the 31-day period this year.

Down by more than half are assaults, criminal mischief and — perhaps least surprising — traffic incidents.

Rising, though, were police responses for family and neighbor disputes, overdoses, mental health crises and violations of protection from abuse orders.

According to the sources PublicSource consulted, including the Pittsburgh police bureau, resident public safety councils and a law professor with expertise in policing, the data likely reflects a downturn in crime, not a decrease in police diligence.

“We’re still doing our job,” Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said in a late-April interview with PublicSource. “We’re still providing safety for the communities. We’re checking businesses that are closed because of the pandemic, trying to do the best we can to keep people and their properties safe.”

That job is different now, he noted — and it may evolve further as a result of the eventual end of the stay-at-home order and the continuing economic downturn.

“Would people who are out of work look for other means to get money for their families,” he wondered, “through thefts or robberies or anything else like that?”

(Illustration by Jay Manning)

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Pandemic-era policing: Fewer crimes, but signs of rising stress

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