The ceaseless hardships brought on by the coronavirus pandemic are resulting in a wave of violence sweeping through some of Connecticut’s largest cities, with smaller communities now seeing its effects.
Shootings and car thefts have markedly increased, according to state and local law enforcement officials who met virtually with Gov. Ned Lamont Friday, and said it will take an “all hands on deck” approach to address the social and economic needs of communities.
There are no official statewide numbers for 2020 that indicate an uptick, said Marc Pelka, Undersecretary of Criminal Justice for the Office of Policy and Management.
But it’s clear by the incidents that city officials in New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury report that the pandemic and the social ills it exacerbates are having a profound impact on crime, Pelka said.
“It’s exposed the inequities that have manifested in our cities,” Pelka said.
Issues like education, health care, food insecurity and economic insecurity are “swelling in cities,” Pelka said.
New Haven Police Chief Otoniel Reyes told Lamont that his officers are dealing with juveniles with unmet needs. An officer was able to safely defuse a situation with a gun involving two teens, one of whom was found asleep in a running stolen vehicle with a firearm in the car, Reyes said.
“We did not have a missing persons report,” Reyes said. “Nobody was missing this young man. We know he was on a crime spree but what we need to know is what are the underlying issues that need to be addressed?”
Reyes said his officers have taken to showing up at the homes of juveniles who have gotten into trouble to talk to their parents. “We have to connect them to services that directly connect to their issues,” Reyes said.
Increased car thefts, robberies and burglaries are products of the pandemic, Reyes said. “People are significantly impacted in their pockets,” he said. “This is requiring us to put all hands on deck. I don’t know any industry that’s not impacted by this.”
The ripples have spread beyond the largest cities. In one 48-hour period this week, police reported more than 100 cars broken into in Newington, and another 40 with smashed windows and items stolen from Meriden.
Waterbury is arresting juveniles as young as 16 and a “select group of young adults” who are repeat offenders for crimes like car theft and shootings, said Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo.
“These groups are engaged in violence,” Spagnolo said. “Citizens in our community are getting caught up in gun battles where there are 20 to 30 shots fired from multiple-caliber weapons.”
It’s been a challenge to find ways to help people, since the traditional methods aren’t available during the public health crisis, Spagnolo said. “This pandemic has really struck a chord,” Spagnolo said. “We’ve had to find different ways to provide assistance to these folks.”
Urban communities are frustrated, said Stacey Spell, who is the New Haven program manager for Project Longevity, a city and federal partnership that works to quell violence.
“One of the things I’ve encountered is that communities of color are having problems accessing PPE (personal protective equipment),” Spell said. “There’s frustration in food security, in employment, the pandemic has affected everyone in every way.”
Spell said a huge number of people who have never had to visit a food pantry are doing so now because of unemployment or underemployment.
Parents are also frustrated because youth now have few opportunities to engage their minds or their time, Spell said.
“We have to continue to be innovative in our approach,” Spell said. “It’s not just the police, it’s not just the community. We need all hands on deck if our communities are going to survive.”
Lamont agreed that the pandemic, which has caused the deaths of 5,363 state residents as of Friday, has attacked not only the public’s health but the economic health of families, causing stress and hardship. The state had been “blessed” with declining crime rates until the pandemic hit, Lamont said. “Now that’s reversing course, we see that in terms of shootings. How can we prevent those crimes going forward?”
Lamont said he wants to figure out ways to make sure people who have been incarcerated or convicted have access to services including job training.
“We need to work together as communities,” Lamont said.