The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has seen crime rates plummet as more people stay inside their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a significant decline in child abuse reports has become a concern.
In a news conference on Monday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said compared to this time last year, violent crimes in unincorporated L.A. County and cities patrolled by the department are down 9.26%. That includes a 31.25% drop in homicides and a 34.85% decrease in reported rapes.
Property crimes are also down by 15.47%, and calls for service dropped by 12.17%.
Since March 29, there have been 19 citations related to COVID-19 health orders, mostly for businesses such as bars that have not followed orders to shut down. The arrest of a paddle boarder at Malibu Pier for ignoring a lifeguard’s order to get out of the water remains the only arrest so far, Villanueva said.
Most people are complying with county rules that they wear facial coverings while inside grocery stores and other essential businesses, Villanueva said, adding that warnings are usually enough.
But as crimes drop, the sheriff worried about the steep reduction of suspected child abuse reports while schools — where teachers and others staffers are required to report suspected abuse — remain closed.
In March, there were 4,200 reports of suspected child abuse — about 20% down compared to March 2019. Between April 1 and 8, reports dropped about 50% from the same time a year ago.
“When the reporting numbers are down, there (are) less eyes out there, less mandatory reporters,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff expressed his concerns as the L.A. Unified School District announced that schools will remain closed through the summer.
“These numbers are alarming because they are so far outside the norm, it infers there is abuse occurring which is not being reported,” a statement from the Sheriff’s Department said.
Villanueva urged anyone who suspects abuse against minors to report it to authorities.
“Don’t hold onto the situation thinking it’s going to get better,” the sheriff said.
“With our current situation, with less eyes on the problem, things don’t get better. They tend to devolve. And we do not want another Gabriel Fernandez or another Anthony Avalos,” Villanueva said, referring to high-profile L.A. County cases that left two boys dead.
Villanueva said he’s also worried about the growing number of coronavirus cases among sworn officers and personnel at the Sheriff’s Department.
Out of the 18,000 agency officers and employees, 429 have been quarantined. So far, 33 have tested positive for COVID-19; 230 have returned to work.
Villanueva described one of the 33 patients as a custody assistant at the Men’s Central Jail who is currently in an intensive care unit.
The sheriff also confirmed the death of a nursing staff member with the L.A. County Department of Health Services who worked in the county jail system, saying that the Sheriff’s Department mourns with the health agency.
Infection rates within the Sheriff’s Department are higher than that of the county’s general population due to the nature of the work, Villanueva said.
The department has contingency plans in place for up to a 50% drop in available personnel, the sheriff said.
The county jail system, the largest in the U.S., has fortunately fared better than those in New York and Illinois, according to Villanueva.
Among the inmates, 11 have tested positive, 676 have been quarantined, and 28 have been isolated.
The Sheriff’s Department continues to work with the District Attorney’s Office and courts to keep the inmate population down while considering the public’s safety.
The county has reduced the number of inmates by 25% since the outbreak began, Villanueva said.