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York County DA: Crime rates down, but harassment and ODs spike

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Certain crimes have dropped in York County while a few have skyrocketed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to York County District Attorney Dave Sunday.

Most of the fluctuations appear to be the direct result of people staying in their homes and self-isolating, he said, adding there are predictable trends in the numbers.

"We're seeing what this type of lifestyle does to crime. ... That's what these numbers tell me," Sunday told The York Dispatch. "I can tell you right now this will be studied (nationwide) for probably decades."

But the DA said one of his biggest concerns — shared by the county's police chiefs — is that because mandated reporters of child abuse currently don't have much access to children, physical and sexual abuse might be going unreported for now. Mandated reporters include teachers, day care workers, babysitters, coaches, youth leaders and those in the medical field.

"There are a lot of kids in our community who are not sheltering in a safe place," Sunday said, adding some children look forward to going to school because it's a place where they can escape abuse.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

Concerned for kids: Because schools closed early for the pandemic, "I think we really don't have a window into what may or may not be going on with a lot of these kids, which is very worrisome for us," the DA said.

Sunday said child-abuse referrals began ticking upward once teachers and students settled into classes online. So even without seeing students in person, teachers are watching out for, and identifying, children at possible risk, he said.

"That's how it's supposed to work," he said. "Teachers. They deserve accolades."

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The York County Office of Children, Youth and Families is also providing services that are necessary for at-risk children, according to the DA.

"They're up and running," Sunday said. "For new referrals, they are still making face-to-face contact with children and families to ensure the safety of children, and are obviously continuing to go into homes regularly on all their high-risk cases."

Anyone who suspects a child is being abused should call ChildLine, part of Pennsylvania's statewide child-protective program, at 800-932-0313. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

More:York County judges keep cases moving with Zoom videoconferencing

700% increase: Perhaps the crime with the biggest increase in York County since the COVID-19 pandemic started is the misdemeanor of harassment by communication, which means harassing or threatening someone via phone, text, email or social media.

Northern York County Regional Police reported a 700% increase in harassment by communication for the period of April 1 to April 20, compared to the same week in 2019, according to Sunday.

"That's an interesting, but not unexpected, byproduct of our current living situation," the DA said. "It's certainly reasonable to infer that a majority of harassment by communication involves some sort of domestic angle."

York County Judicial Center logo

Because people are essentially living under a lockdown, they are stressed and in some cases angry, Sunday said, adding that those feelings can prompt people to make threats or harass others.

He urged parents to pay attention to communications received by their children, who can also fall victim to threats or harassment.

"Every kid in York County is getting stir crazy," he said.

The department is also reporting a 200% increase in reports of terroristic threats being made from the same time period this year versus in 2019.

Police ticket logo

Crime numbers: Sunday said crime in York County has dropped considerably over the past month:

  • The week of March 22, there were 135 criminal cases filed in York County, both in adult and juvenile courts. During the same period in 2019, that number was 212.
  • The week of March 29 saw 109 criminal cases filed, down from 210 during the same week in 2019.
  • There were just 97 criminal cases filed in York County the week of April 5. During that week in 2019, the number was 222.
  • And for the week of April 12 a total of 68 criminal cases were filed in York County, down from 205 cases for the same week in 2019.

Countywide, the number of adult criminal cases involving violence has primarily stayed the same, according to Sunday. Those crimes include aggravated assault, simple assault, arson, false imprisonment and aggravated cruelty to animals.

Vehicular crimes that are misdemeanors or felonies have dropped drastically, Sunday said:

  • 33 cases the week of March 22 
  • 23 cases the week of March 29
  • 17 cases the week of April 5
  • 12 cases the week of April 12

"That's the most stunning of all these numbers," he said, and extremely unusual. Those vehicular crimes including driving under the influence, fleeing or eluding police, hit and run, assault or homicide by vehicle, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and theft of a motor vehicle.

Pennsylvania's Steer Clear law requires drivers to move at least one lane away from emergency responders on the side of the highway. Drivers who can't move over must, by law, slow down.

'Getting it done': York County's police officers remain on the job, according to the DA, who said he's unaware of any COVID-19 outbreaks at the county's police departments. He also said police response during the pandemic has been impressive.

"They have adapted to the circumstances," he said. "They're out there getting it done ... to keep the community safe."

Police departments in the county aren't seeing exactly the same increases and decreases.

York City Police and Northern Regional Police have seen very little increase in reported domestic assaults since people began self-isolating, according to Sunday, while York Area Regional Police has reported a 36% increase.

York Area has seen a 100% decrease in robberies compared with the same period in 2019, while York City's dropped by two-thirds, Sunday said. He noted that most robberies are crimes of opportunity, so if people aren't out in public, opportunities for would-be robbers decrease.

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York City Police had a 24% decrease in total Part I crimes, which include homicide, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, arson and motor vehicle theft.

Narcan use spikes: Northern Regional Police reported a 300% increase in Narcan use by police officers between April 1 and April 20, compared with the same time period in 2019, according to the DA. The department has also seen a 275% increase in drug overdoses during the same time period.

More:'Recipe for disaster': Opioid ODs spike in York County amid COVID-19 pandemic

Narcan, generic name naloxone, immediately reverses the effects of opioid overdose when administered in time, and the DA's office has supplied every police department in the county with the life-saving drug.

Domestic violence logo

Suicides, PFAs: Northern Regional has also seen a 100% increase in suicides for the first 20 days in April, compared with the same time period in 2019, Sunday said.

The department is also reporting a 200% increase in violations of protection from abuse (PFA) orders — but a 300% decrease in new PFAs being filed, according to the DA.

Sunday said perhaps domestic-violence victims feel less inclined to drive to the York County Judicial Center to file PFAs because of the pandemic. But he noted that the PFA process is up and running, though victims should first call 911.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.