By Kathleen Peppo / LSU Manship School News Service
Along with the expected tolls that Gov. John Bel Edwards’s stay-at-home order has taken on residents across Louisiana, the new normal has had a positive side effect: Crime rates have fallen substantially in cities and towns that are following it.
With the options to roam the streets and hang out in groups ruled out, towns whose residents are taking the order seriously have seen significantly lower rates of crime and relatively few arrests. On the other hand, crime rates in areas that are continuing life without as much focus on the stay-at-home order are virtually the same as before it was put in place, police say.
A spot check suggests crime has dropped in the biggest cities — New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette — and in many smaller spots around the state. Except for a shooting that wounded two juveniles last week, Eunice has seen less crime along with less traffic and less activity all around. Randy Fontenot, Eunice’s chief of police, said the town has been “extremely quiet.”
Fontenot said that the Eunice Police Department made only several arrests during each of the last two weekends, an unusually low number.
“We’re making some, but our daily logs are usually about two or three pages long, and, lately, some have been only half a page,” he said.
With so many public places closed or operating with very little human contact, crime is hardly an option in some areas. People cannot sit inside restaurants, peruse stores freely or roam the streets. There is little to no group activity, and crime is becoming less and less convenient.
Sgt. Wayne Griffin said that the Lafayette Police Department has “seen a real decrease in crime with the stay-at-home order in effect. We’ve seen less stores open, less people on the roads, less people at work, so we’ve had less incidents for sure.”
“Our citizens have been really great about adhering to the orders,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that people are kind of just staying at home, doing their things, doing some honey dos.”
He added that in the more than four weeks since Edwards’ stay-at-home order went into effect on March 23, every type of crime, even domestic violence, has decreased compared to the four-week period prior to the order and even compared to the same four-week period in 2019.
According to Stanley Nelson, the editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, the citizens of Concordia Parish are struggling with the anxieties caused by the virus and the stay-at-home order, just as many others are.
“It’s definitely affected business; our sales taxes are down,” he said. “I know it’s hard for people to have to stay home. Everybody’s worried about the virus. Everybody’s worried about their financial future, as well as their health. It’s a real dilemma.”
Crime and arrest rates also have plummeted there, and Nelson credits this to “people taking the order seriously. They’re listening, and they don’t have the chance to commit any crimes.”
The trend also holds true in Alexandria and Monroe.
Jim Smilie, the projects coordinator at Alexandria’s City Hall, said the number of police service calls is down about 45 percent since the stay-at-home order began, “and that translates to less crime.”
Smilie said there also has been “noticeably less traffic” since the order was put in place, a good indicator that people have been staying in. “Alexandria residents have done a good job of complying with the orders,” he said.
Sgt. Charles Johnson of the Monroe Police Department said traffic has gone down substantially on the local roadways since March 23. “People seem to be staying home, and crime rates have definitely decreased,” he said.
Edwards on Monday extended the stay-at-home order through May 15, adding another two weeks until the beginning of a phased economic reopening. He added exceptions for restaurants to let patrons eat on outdoor patios and for malls to be able conduct retail sales using curbside pickup as long as all employees wear masks.
News stories also point to low rates of crime across much of the country and the world. But there are exceptions in Louisiana and elsewhere.
Minden Police Captain Julie Harmon said her city in northwest Louisiana, did not see as much change in traffic and activity levels as some of the other communities after the governor initially imposed the stay-at-home order last month.
“No, and do you want to know why?" Harmon said. "Because people are not staying at home.”
Harmon said Minden saw five arrests on the weekend of April 18-19, the same number of arrests the town had at this time last year.
“To show you what I mean, crawfish boils every weekend, hundreds of people there,” she said. “It’s just crazy. The first weekend of the stay-at-home order, you just had hundreds of people in the streets saying, ‘You can’t make me go home,’ this and that. The next weekend there’s a crawfish boil in the same area, same people, just hundreds of people again.”
But Harmon said Monday that residents stayed in this past weekend. She said the police did not have to respond to any complaints of large gatherings over the weekend and did not make any arrests.
Fontenot said that the decrease in calls to the police in Eunice has given the officers more time to patrol. “Actually, I think that’s another reason that we’ve seen a decrease in our crime rates, because officers are patrolling instead of handling calls and making arrests,” he said.