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Charleston-area cops face fewer calls, but altered challenges during coronavirus outbreak

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Charleston police patrol King Street in downtown Charleston after coronavirus outbreak measures were announced. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Police calls in the Charleston area have declined slightly since the coronavirus outbreak escalated last month, records and other information obtained by The Post and Courier show.

Data provided by the Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center shows 66,037 law enforcement calls for service in March, compared with 67,457 in March 2019.

Statistics provided by tri-county law enforcement agencies paint a largely stable picture. Some departments showed drops in crimes such as burglary while others have recorded increases in categories such as automobile thefts and aggravated assaults. 

Overall, law enforcement officials in the Charleston area say fighting crime during the outbreak presents a significant challenge they're working hard to meet.

North Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Scott Deckard said residents of the city are "strong and united" in fighting the spread of the virus.

"Because it has been less than a month since businesses and daily life has been impacted, not enough time has elapsed to determine a 'trend' in any of our crime categories during this time," Deckard said. "If you look at our crime, we are seeing increases in some categories over last year and we have to take a holistic view towards crime control in our community."

Some crime categories tend to rise and fall over time, and those are addressed by deploying additional resources as necessary, he said. 

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North Charleston Police Department officers go over their day at North Charleston City Hall before going to assisted-living facilities with flyers on the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

In North Charleston, several crime categories underwent small to moderate increases, according to records from the department. 

There were 24 robberies in March compared with 17 in March 2019. Aggravated assaults also increased, with 62 in March compared with 51 the year before. 

Overall violent crime increased, with 91 incidents in March and 75 in March 2019, records show. But several categories either remained flat or decreased, such as murders, rapes and motor vehicle thefts.

"Overall, we are concerned anytime we show an increase in crime and our efforts are focused on reducing those crimes," Deckard said. "This is a difficult time for our community and nation. Never in our history have we seen a pandemic of this nature, nor have we seen the type of actions being taken to control the spread of the virus. As a police department, we are sworn to serve and protect the community and we will continue to do just that."

In Charleston, officers are monitoring issues such as mental health calls, drug overdoses, domestic violence, property crimes and aggravated assaults, Police Chief Luther Reynolds said. 

Call volumes remain down overall, but last week showed increases on Monday and Friday to near-normal levels, Reynolds said. Calls reporting domestic violence have not increased, but the department is keeping a close eye on the situation as people remain at home longer. 

Charleston officers are tasked with enforcing social distancing rules at parks, on waterways and around the city, he said. At the same time, they've been busy conducting drug investigations, investigating a homicide in the city's East Side neighborhood and fighting crime overall. 

Information provided by the department shows a doubling in violent crime in Charleston year over year, with 39 incidents recorded in March and 18 in March 2019. Nonviolent crimes also increased, with 138 in March and 108 a year earlier. 

Charleston's data shows increases in aggravated assaults, robberies and rapes, but declines in burglaries, drug violations, weapons violations and firearms stolen from vehicles. 

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"Typically this time of year is when things start getting a little busier," Reynolds said. "Those same factors exist. We have a tremendous workload when you add in increased expectations of keeping people off waterways and enforcing social distancing. Our legal staff is now focused on ... interpreting the governor's executive orders, focused on the city ordinance, a lot of other things that we wouldn't normally be focused on."

The chief said he wants the community to know that he and his officers are working hard to keep everyone safe and even with social distancing measures in place no one is against people going outside for fresh air. 

"We want people to maintain their fitness, mentally, physically and psychologically," Reynolds said. "Nobody is trying to shut people down from that, but there are groups that are not adhering to the social distancing. We know that if we really are disciplined we really can slow this down enough to where we can not only save lives but get back to the recovery more quickly."

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office has not seen an increase in violent crime, said Capt. Roger Antonio, a department spokesman. 

Deputies responded to slightly more aggravated assaults, with 53 this March compared with 47 last year, according to department data. Nearly every other major crime category exhibited decreases, including burglaries, guns taken from vehicles, rapes, robberies, drug offenses, weapons offenses and stolen vehicles. 

"Given the current state of operations, deputies are having to think outside of the box for day-to-day service calls," Antonio said. "There’s a number of reasons as to why crime numbers may be flat. We can all say that one noticeable factor is that traffic and leisure activity is significantly low. So any nefarious activity, especially at night, would stick out like a sore thumb."

Lt. Shaun Tumbleston, a spokesman for the Summerville Police Department, said the town has not seen any significant increases in crime, but call volumes remain at normal levels.

"We are encouraging the community to practice social distancing," Tumbleston said. "The number of calls for service have not decreased. Primarily we are seeing frauds, auto breaking and entering and mental wellness checks."

In Mount Pleasant, officers have been on the lookout for property crimes.

Officers have recently responded to several reports of burglarized vehicles in which guns were taken, said Insp. Chris Rosier, a Mount Pleasant Police Department spokesman.

The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office reported increases in aggravated assaults, rapes and motor vehicle thefts in March, compared with March 2019, but responded to fewer robberies, burglaries, thefts from motor vehicles, drug violations and weapons violations, according to data from the sheriff's office. 

Lt. Rick Carson, a spokesman for the agency, said deputies are keeping a close eye on domestic violence calls but have not seen those numbers spike compared with March 2019 or in comparison to January or February this year. 

"We're cautiously optimistic that everything continues the way it is right now," Carson said. 

He and others at the Sheriff's Office continue to encourage residents to be vigilant and check their cars before going to sleep.

"As this thing extends, people are going to be without income, without money and unfortunately a lot of people resort to stealing stuff," Carson said.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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