Pandemic impact on calls to law enforcers was mixed

Most crime fell, but 911 calls for mental health crises and sexual assaults grew in 2020.

Concerns raised worldwide about possible large increases in domestic violence and suicides during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t bear out on Whidbey Island in 2020, with overall emergency calls related to the issues decreasing from the prior year.

However, the starkest statistics for the year are in the number of 911 calls to the Island County Sheriff’s Office related to mental health crises and sexual assaults, both of which increased significantly.

The same wasn’t true, however, within Oak Harbor.

Both Island County Sheriff Rick Felici and Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker said it was difficult to determine from raw numbers what impact COVID-19 had on law enforcement and crime. In general, they said, it was business as usual for police officers.

Rules about social distancing and masks sometimes caused complications, but officers adapted. Neither department had any staff with a positive COVID test.

Both the sheriff and the chief speculated that active-duty military members in the community may have mitigated the impact of the pandemic since they have steady employment and so didn’t face the kind of pressures others have.

“It’s been a good year for us,” Felici said. “We have the support of the community, financial support and a professional reputation. We’re just doing our job.”

Compared to 2019, the number of 911 calls in 2020 decreased for both the sheriff’s office and the police department, though not by much.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to 24,715 calls for service in 2019 and 23,192 in 2020. Felici said the number has ranged between 23,000 and 25,000 over the last five years or so. He said he was surprised to learn that the number decreased in 2020 because of how busy deputies are, but he said ever-increasing numbers of mental health calls take up a lot of deputies’ time.

In Oak Harbor, police received 12,572 calls for service in 2019 and 12,113 in 2020.

At the start of the pandemic, advocates worldwide raised concerns about the possibility that the restrictions and financial challenges resulting from the pandemic would result in an increase in crimes such as domestic violence and contribute to the frequency of suicides. Preliminary statistics suggest that neither occurred, according to the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal.

Researchers, however, believe that the pandemic may have restricted reports of domestic violence because victims weren’t able to safely connect with services or police.

On Whidbey Island, reports of domestic violence decreased year over year. In Oak Harbor, however, the number of reports of domestic violence show an increase from 519 in 2019 to 531 in 2020.

Island County had a more significant drop, from 848 in 2019 to 705 in 2020.

Reports related to suicides also decreased. The reports cover suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and suicides as well as concerns that may or may not be confirmed. In Island County, the reports went from 206 in 2019 to 175 in 2020.

In Oak Harbor, reports were essentially flat, with 278 in 2019 and 276 in 2020.

Both departments saw a decrease in burglary reports. In Oak Harbor, reports dropped from 134 in 2019 to 91 in 2020. In unincorporated Island County, there were 311 burglary reports in 2019 and 296 in 2020.

Dresker and Felici said the drop in the number of burglaries could be due to the COVID restrictions that force people to stay home all the time, making a life of crime more difficult for burglars.

Sexual assaults are a different matter. Reports of rape in Island County increased significantly, from 13 in 2019 to 23 in 2020.

In Oak Harbor, however, reports decreased from 13 in 2019 to 11 in 2020.

The chief and the sheriff said they were unsure of any direct relationship between the pandemic and reports of sexual assaults.

In 2020, deputies in the sheriff’s office responded to a large increase in the number of calls related to mental health. Both Felici and Dresker explained that such calls may be categorized by emergency dispatchers as either “mental health” or sometimes “disorderly conduct.”

In 2019, in unincorporated Island County, there were 90 mental-health calls and that jumped to 204 in 2020.

Felici said calls to law enforcement related to people experiencing mental health problems has steadily and precipitously increased for many years on Whidbey Island and across the nation.

“There used to be two or three people who generated all the reports,” he said. “Now it’s two or three a shift.”

On Monday, for example, deputies responded to a report of a man swinging a hammer on the side of the road because he was angry that people were driving on the rumble strip and waking him up.

Felici speculated that some of the increase in 2020 could be related to COVID since people’s access to group therapy, doctors and other services are restricted.

In Oak Harbor, however, calls related to mental health decreased slightly, from 29 in 2019 to 26 in 2020. Disorderly conduct calls went from 389 in 2019 to 362 in 2020.