‘Doing more with less’: 2020 was a challenging year for law enforcement, though some bright spots exist, officials say
Almost no jury trials for an entire year. Increased domestic violence and homicides. And heightened social unrest and communal division that one police captain says he hasn’t seen in his 25-year career.
Law enforcement in Nevada County tell a story during the pandemic about their jobs getting harder, where protocols that seemed immovable were altered, and where in some ways, the community struggled.
But these hardships don’t tell the whole story.
Burglaries and shoplifting reports went down in 2020. DUI and drunk in public reports dropped as well. And in the courtroom, lawyers say that switching some court proceedings to Zoom made the legal process significantly easier on all parties involved, saving time and money.
In summary, the story of how law enforcement fared in 2020 is a complicated one, and experts emphasize that it’s not always clear whether changing patterns of crime last year are a result of the pandemic or other factors.
Some shifts in crime were almost certainly affected by last year’s shutdown policies, officials say.
With more people at home during the day last year, burglaries fell significantly, according to Grass Valley Police Capt. Steve Johnson. And police data shows that DUI reports fell by 25% or more in 2020, as bars remained closed for much of the year and people gathered less to drink in social settings. In fact, Johnson notes that crime across the board in Nevada County declined noticeably during the first couple of months of the pandemic, as people initially respected public health guidelines and stayed at home.
But as it became increasingly clear that the virus wasn’t going away, increased levels of stress and frustration, combined with the absence of social support networks, took a toll on the community, leading to a gradual uptick in crime. Johnson highlighted domestic violence incidents in Nevada County as having risen substantially last year.
“Since the pandemic started, we’ve had an increase in calls of family disturbances, and family issues, because of tension in the home,” Johnson said. “Kids are tired of being stuck in the house, there’s tension with the parents…that kind of thing has really stretched people to their limit, so we’ve seen this increase in calls of domestic incidents.”
Coinciding with high levels of familial stress during the pandemic was also a loss of family support networks, said Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh.
“Domestic violence was one of our biggest concerns this past year. With domestic violence and child abuse cases, a lot of those cases get disclosed from schools as far as abuse that’s happening inside the home,” Walsh said. “With the fact that those kids weren’t in schools and in contact with teachers, and with women who are victims not having contact with the outside world, we did see an increased number of these cases,” he added.
Nevada County also saw a substantial increase in violent crime last year, including slightly more homicides than average, Walsh said. He cautioned that annual fluctuations in crime rates are to be expected, and should not necessarily be attributed to the pandemic.
While it’s far from certain that increases in violent offenses were caused by the shelter-in-place order, one area where the pandemic had a definitive impact was in complicating and delaying legal proceedings.
Walsh emphasized that one of the biggest frustrations for county prosecutors was the almost total suspension of jury trials for all of 2020, as courts were unable to assemble in person due to the risks of COVID-19.
“From the DA’s perspective the biggest impact was jury trials. It already takes a couple of years to get to trial, it involves the courts and defendants being ready and, of course, us being ready as well,” Walsh said. “When COVID hit everything got vacated or put on pause for several months, and then basically we had a year of little, if any, jury trials.”
Walsh noted that jury trials, especially high-profile cases such as murder trials, are already known for being tedious processes, where families of victims often don’t see justice for years. He expressed that with the addition of delays resulting from the pandemic, many trial dates, such as the trial of two men accused in the slaying of Vietnam veteran Stan Norman, have been pushed back an entire calendar year, frustrating grieving families and community members seeking resolution.
“There’s a saying that justice delayed is justice denied, and in this past year justice has certainly been delayed,” Walsh said.
The pandemic didn’t only cause problems for prosecutors, it also created obstacles for defense attorneys and defendants as well, said Public Defender Keri Klein. Klein said that not only did her own office struggle, as it lost some administrative staff after COVID-19 hit, but it was also difficult for her to replace in-person client meetings with video calls, as many of her clients had inadequate internet access.
“Initially, we asked people to call in for video appointments, but a number of my clients can’t do that. The internet really isn’t the best in this county, and it got to the point where it was like, who knows if this particular client will have internet that day,” Klein said, adding that as the pandemic dragged on, her office reverted back to meeting with clients face-to-face as much as possible, due to the complications of remote meetings.
But while Walsh and Klein both agreed that the pandemic brought on a multitude of obstacles for the justice system, they also both expressed support for the court’s decision to allow certain legal proceedings, like court appearances and pretrial conferences, to be conducted over Zoom calls rather than in-person. This procedure saved time and money, especially for defendants who may not have reliable transportation to appear in court, Klein said.
“I think that when a client is able to do a court appearance by video, they can now Zoom in to appear from home or even their job, and I really hope that courts keep this ability going,” she said. Klein said that bench warrants for accused persons not showing up in court declined considerably in 2020, as joining a hearing was as simple as logging onto one’s computer.
While COVID-19 may have necessitated helpful changes in the courts, police in Nevada County say that for the most part they can’t wait to be rid of pandemic restrictions on their departments.
All departments last year implemented strict protocols regarding virus testing, sanitizing facilities, and mask mandates, but some officers still inevitably contracted the virus, said sheriff’s Lt. Sean Scales. A single officer being exposed to COVID-19 meant that all sheriff’s personnel in contact with that individual went home for two weeks — increasing the workload for the rest of the department, Scales said.
County law enforcement also had to suspend its volunteer programs, in order to comply with state guidelines limiting the number of personnel allowed in public buildings. Both Scales and Johnson said that the loss of volunteers was a considerable burden on their departments, as full-time staff had to take on the administrative work that volunteers typically handle.
“Now you’re trying to get all that extra work accomplished, and the calls for service don’t stop, the crime doesn’t stop, but you’re doing more with less,” Scales said.
Both Grass Valley police and the Sheriff’s Office say that they tried to reserve in-person police responses for emergencies, so as to reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19 between personnel and the public. Non-emergency 911 calls were handled over the phone by police whenever possible, Johnson said. The inevitable result of this policy was that the relationship between law enforcement and the community suffered, he added.
“Nothing can replace those face-to-face interactions, whether it’s interviewing a subject or a witness. There’s been a lack of relationship with the community, a kind of intangible effect of all this, and we’ve worked hard to recover from that,” Johnson said.
Even as police have had to shift operations since the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson said his department has had to deal with another challenge: increased levels of social anger and political division that have boiled over at public demonstrations. Incidents in Nevada County, such as a political protest in Nevada City last August that ended in violence, are reflective of broader social unrest nationwide that Johnson expressed has been fueled by the anger and desperation brought on by the pandemic.
“What’s changed for me in doing this job for 25 years is that I’ve never seen people so polarized and opposed to listening to the other side. And then you throw in desperation on top of that — people are desperate emotionally, financially, because of the isolation from this pandemic,” Johnson said.
In 2020 Grass Valley police had to respond to a large number of incidents concerning people refusing to wear masks at businesses, which Johnson attributed to the national polarization over the merits of mask wearing. But even more problematic for his department has been unprecedented levels of aggression present at political demonstrations since the pandemic began, Johnson added.
Since last August’s incident, Grass Valley officers have had to undergo additional training on crowd management, and have been prepared for demonstrations with brand new riot gear, including helmets, shields, and protective vests.
“Post-August in Nevada County, the protocol is that if there’s a rally, we need to be there,” Johnson said “We see our role as police as facilitating a safe and legal environment at these events. And if something started to develop where there’s a confrontation, we need to be ready to move. That’s all new for us.”
Johnson emphasized that he sees his department’s role as one of facilitating peaceful demonstrations, rather than discouraging people from assembly.
“The vast majority of what goes in with protests is good and healthy. It’s when it’s not done within the bounds of the law where you’re violating someone else’s rights, or it’s not safe and you’re violating laws, that’s where we come in.”
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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