Aspen crime drops significantly in the age of COVID-19
Aspen Police stats for 2020 show dramatic drops in nearly all areas
While the list of positive trends over the past year is short, one silver lining is that crime in Aspen dropped significantly, according to Aspen Police Department statistics.
The total number of arrests by Aspen police officers in 2020 was down 42% over 2019, while property crime and drunken driving arrests each dropped by 36%, according to the statistics.
“In the same sense that COVID suppressed the economy and everything else in society, it had the same effect on crime,” said Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn. “It’s pretty much an illustration of 2020 — not a lot going on.”
Still, the statistics show that crime rose in a few areas, some of which are easily explainable because of the COVID-19 pandemic and others not so much, he said.
Welfare checks, for example, increased by 44% from 212 in 2019 to 306 in 2020, a likely indicator of the decrease in human interactions caused by pandemic social distancing. Officers even discovered two dead bodies last year after friends or family asked them to check up on someone, including one victim of COVID-19, Linn said.
The number of assaults in Aspen in 2020 also increased by 15%, from 34 in 2019 to 39 last year, according to the statistics. That one is harder to explain, Linn said, because the assaults that occurred last year “were spaced out all over the community” and didn’t include bar fights, which are usually a leading cause, because bars have been closed most of the year.
“It may be a reflection of society being on lockdown,” he said.
One significantly different aspect to police officers’ jobs in 2020 that didn’t appear in the statistics had to do with face masks. Officers logged more than 8,000 contacts in 2020 with people downtown who weren’t wearing masks, Linn said. All were educational in nature and mostly pleasant, he said.
Another area where law enforcement might have expected to see an increase — domestic violence — either decreased or stayed the same in Aspen, according to the statistics. Cases of criminal domestic violence — the more severe cases — dropped 30% from 33 in 2019 to 23 in 2020. Non criminal domestic violence remained the same, with 40 cases in each year.
“We were told to anticipate that (increase) because people were being locked in together,” Linn said. “The statistics don’t bear it out, but that doesn’t mean domestic violence wasn’t increasing.”
Shannon Meyer, executive director of an organization called Response that provides help for domestic violence victims in the Roaring Fork Valley, agreed with Linn’s assessment. The organization had more calls to its crisis line in 2020 than in 2019 but dealt with fewer clients, she said.
“It’s really hard for people to reach out for help,” she said. “The physical ability to get alone to call (was difficult).”
Pandemic stressors like job loss and the resulting economic hardships coupled with a perceived lack of places to go to get away from an abuser likely contributed to the decreased number of police cases, she said.
For example, here in the Roaring Fork Valley and elsewhere, domestic violence calls dropped significantly when the lockdown went into full effect in March and April, Meyer said. But when the restrictions eased in May, self-referrals and referrals from police officers increased immediately and dramatically, she said.
The organization also saw an increase in the severity of cases, as well as a huge number of requests for mental health services, Meyer said. In fact, Response has nearly exhausted its yearly budget for mental health services and 2021 is barely two months old, she said.
“Unless we can raise more money for that, we won’t be able to help,” Meyer said. “It’s an indication of how stressed people are.”
Luisa Berne, an assistant district attorney in Pitkin County Court who handles many domestic violence cases, said she’s noticed similar trends. The fear factor among women who have been abused has been higher during the pandemic, she said.
“Victims are putting up with things they probably wouldn’t have put up with a year ago,” Berne said. “It feels more dangerous for the victims now.”
Part of the problem is convincing victims that resources do exist, said Berne and Meyer. Response can offer economic and housing assistance if victims call the organization’s helpline at 970-925-SAFE (7233). A text option also is available on the organization’s website at http://www.responsehelps.org for people who cannot speak openly, she said.
And while the community of Aspen may have been more stressed out in 2020 because of the pandemic, at least one subset that frequently requires significant attention remained relatively quiet in 2020, Linn said.
“We’re pretty grateful the bears were tame last year,” he said. “A bad bear year can be all-encompassing, and it’s good we didn’t have to chase bears and deal with COVID.”
Aspen police received just 262 bear calls in 2020 compared with 963 in 2019, according to the statistics.
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