By Robert Traverso
With mask on, you anxiously speed-walk through the parking lot to avoid every person in sight after your latest run to stock up on food at the grocery store, when you notice someone has vandalized your car. Dial 911? No, log onto SuffolkCountyPD.org to file a report online.
In yet another change to normal life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Suffolk County Police Department mandated on March 21 that beginning on March 23, people report certain “specific non-emergency incidents” online, rather than call 911 in an effort to protect police officers and residents from the virus.
In Suffolk, minor traffic accidents, vandalism, theft and more should be reported online. (Click here to see the full list of crimes you should now report online in Suffolk. For emergencies and crimes in progress, continue to dial 911.)
Social distancing is tough for police officers, officials say. Interacting closely with the public is a crucial part of their job.
“The changes will be enacted in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 for the safety of police officers and residents,” SCPD in a Facebook post announcing the new policy.
Rob Calarco, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, explained the logic behind the new policy: “We’re asking all residents to do either electronic reporting or reporting over the phone to diminish the amount of face-to-face interactions and in-person contacts that could potentially spread the disease.”
The Nassau County Police Department, which has not mandated online crime reporting, announced on March 16 that “comments or complaints and Freedom of Information Law requests” should be reported here.
In Nassau, non-emergency 911 calls are being delegated to precincts on a case-by-case basis.
“If you’re a non-emergency call, we’ll take your information; we’ll forward you to the precinct. The precinct will take the report,” Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder told News 12 Long Island.
Additionally, “If you call 911 for a health emergency, our communications bureau operators will screen each caller to obtain specific information to protect against #coronavirus,” NCPD posted to Facebook on March 23.
Officials from the police departments in both Long Island counties have said first responders are being provided with equipment to protect them from the virus.
In Nassau, “personal protective equipment, including, but not limited to, N95 respiratory protection masks, gloves, eye protection and gowns, continues to be provided to all first responders within the NCPD,” a department statement reads.
More than 30 police officers in Nassau and 12 in Suffolk had tested positive for the virus as of a March 26, according to a report in Newsday.
In New York City, the head of the NYPD estimated that 900 police officers would test positive for COVID-19 by Monday, March 30 — an increase in 300 cases since the previous weekend.
Ryder, however, said Nassau had not seen a high number of sick day call-outs as yet, despite dozens of officers testing positive.
The fear in both Nassau and Suffolk is a high number of police officers contracting the virus and needing to take time off, undercutting efforts to keep the public safe.
Changes to law enforcement made throughout the U.S. and on Long Island — as well as record levels of unemployment — in response to the outbreak have led many to fear a spike in crime.
Some U.S. cities — like Denver and Philadelphia — have suspended arrests and detention for “low-level” offenses like theft, burglary, vandalism and drug-related crimes in an effort to stabilize prison populations.
This had not happened on Long Island as of press time. “In Suffolk County, I’m not aware of any low-level offenders being released,” Calarco said.
Critics see the new measures, including reporting non-emergencies online, as too lax and bound to lead to a crime wave.
Reporting non-emergencies online actually helps police officers on Long Island to deal with more important crimes like looting and burglary that people are worried about, Calarco argued. He said Suffolk’s online crime reporting tool, originally rolled out in February 2019, boosts law enforcement’s efforts to stop crime.
“It frees up our police officers to be able to respond to more pressing issues,” Calarco said.
He noted that “we may see a spike of people trying to break in and burglarize establishments,” which many see as an inevitable due to the desperation associated with unemployment.
The Federal Reserve estimates that the U.S. unemployment rate might reach 32 percent — a number only topped during the Great Depression.
One study, which looked at unemployed people in Norway, found a correlation between an increase in criminal behavior and being out of work. “Out-of-work people commit 60 percent more property crimes (such as theft, shoplifting, burglary, and vandalism) in the year after losing work and have 20 percent more criminal charges than when employed,” the report concluded.
So far, however, recently released data show that crime fell drastically on Long Island last month.
From the week ending March 15 to the week ending March 29, Suffolk saw a 29.1 percent decrease in robbery, burglary, felony assault and grand larceny, and Nassau saw “major crime” — robberies, burglaries, stolen vehicles and other offenses — fall by more than 45 percent between March 3 and March 9.
“We’re seeing a major reduction in crime since the stay-at-home order was put in place,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told Newsday. “It just really takes away the opportunity. There aren’t as many people on the street, so there are fewer targets of crime.”
“I suspect that even people in other counties are putting their health first,” Calarco said. “And that’s what we need to be doing right now: make sure we’re protecting the public health.”
Where to report crime/complaints:
FOR ALL EMERGENCIES, DIAL 911.
To report non-emergencies in Suffolk: https://suffolkpd.org/OnlineReporting.aspx.
For violations in Suffolk of New York State mandatory business closures, call (631) 852-COPS.
To report comments/complaints in Nassau: https://www.pdcn.org/35/e-SERVICES.
To call/file a precinct-specific police report in Nassau, check the list here before dialing: https://twitter.com/NassauCountyPD/status/1239944592067346434.