Readers have been wondering how the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and subsequent visitor and homebuyer surges have affected Truckee/North Tahoe crime rates. As violent crime numbers have risen across the nation since 2019, is there more crime overall in our region than existed before the pandemic lockdown of spring 2020? Has the pandemic generated more stress-related calls, such as for heart attack or suicide? Do safety cautions — for example about theft of bicycles and catalytic converters — apply locally?
Moonshine Ink called local law enforcement and emergency responders to find out.
National trends were bad
It’s no secret: The national crime trends of 2020 were alarming. According to New Orleans-based analyst Jeff Asher, who compared 2019 and 2020 murder rates for 60 major cities, homicides were up in metropolitan areas. Asher’s data shows an average increase across all cities of about 35%. San Francisco experienced about 20% more murders that year, while Sacramento had about 25% more. Across California, the category of violent crimes, which includes not only murder but also aggravated assault and other violations, has grown in the past three years. In a different data analysis by the FBI, made available online on the FBI crime data explorer, in California, violent crimes were slightly down in 2019 from a high in 2017, but were still about 10% above the national average. According to the FBI, California homicides, aggravated assault, arson, and motor vehicle thefts rose, while rapes, robberies, burglaries, and larceny-thefts declined.
Unusual and area-specific crime incidents in nearby cities have occupied many regional news reports. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a spike in burglaries from 2019 to 2020 and into 2021, and recently covered group thieving at retail stories, apparently made possible by social media communication; thefts of catalytic converters, which contain precious metals, have been on the rise in Reno and elsewhere, according to News4 and other news agencies. Crime analysts across the country point to vagrancy, drug abuse, homelessness, loss of jobs, and financial stresses as the ignition points for many crimes. Placer County analytics experts note that a large number of in-county crimes are perpetrated by out-of-county criminals.
Law enforcement incidents and requests
Snow years provided unique challenges for law enforcement. A dozen miles south of Truckee, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office Tahoe Substation generated a total 13,700 calls* in 2017, a year when tremendous amounts of snow fell in the region, according to estimates published in the county’s annual report. (The report indicates the substation served 14,000 residents along with some 1.2 million visitors that year.) Downed utility lines, power outages, traffic accidents, fallen trees, and avalanche dangers were some of the snow problems mentioned in the 2017 annual report. “While 47.6 feet of snowfall on Donner Summit was not the highest on record, the ‘Snowmageddon’ or ‘Snowpocalypse’ defined our operations for months,’ the report stated.
But recently, wintertime snowfall in the region hasn’t been very dramatic. What has influenced call volumes in North Tahoe are the changes wrought by the pandemic.
Placer County’s senior legal clerk, Aimee Kincade, shared North Tahoe data for the months of July and August in 2019, 2020, and 2021. They showed a steady rise in some summertime crimes and a plateau in others. There was a rise in crimes against persons, crimes that include simple assault (not assault with intent to kill), child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, hate crimes, rape, and robbery, her data showed. In total, these grew from 27 total in 2019 to 44 in 2020. The 2021 levels remained nearly the same at 38 for the two summer months. Tallied within those totals, sex crimes, domestic violence, and assault showed some of the greatest gains.
Property crimes also nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 during those same summer months, Kincade reported. Those include vandalism, stolen property, theft, burglary, and fraud. The largest jumps occurred among burglaries, which multiplied from only two in 2019 to 15 in 2020 and 16 in 2021. Summertime shoplifting incidents surged from 13 in 2019 to 30 in 2020 but dropped to 21 in 2021. July and August vandalism nearly doubled from four to seven from 2019 to 2020 but declined to just one incident in 2021.
Burglaries and thefts are following regional trends. “We typically see the same trends here as occur in more urban areas, including the organized bicycle and catalytic converter thefts,” Michael Powers, a sergeant in the Investigations Division at the Tahoe Substation, said. “It has been my experience that the crime rings branch out and will target our area. We have linked numerous thefts to Sacramento or Bay Area suspects.” There’s been a slight increase in offenses created by juveniles, he said, noting that that might be linked to an increase in enrollment at the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District after nearly a decade of decline.
“The Tahoe area is a tourist destination,” Powers said. “… there are two significant calls for services spikes every year, which corresponds to our summer and winter seasons. Our calls for service easily double during busy seasons.”
Truckee Police Department
The Truckee Police Department makes its call volume numbers available for citations, arrests, alcohol-related incidents, and more in a quarterly newsletter published on its website. Data since a June 2021 ransomware attack on the Town of Truckee is not yet available online, but summaries for the two years prior to that are available. They show not much change in the overall numbers between 2019 and 2020, according to Truckee Police Department’s support services manager, Deverie Acuff. In 2019, there were 14,804 total calls for service, and in 2020, 14,640. Many crime categories were in fact down slightly, Acuff reported. Only one category of criminal offense was up in Truckee, and quite drastically — vandalism, which nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020.
Weapons offenses in Truckee, on the other hand, nearly halved. Drunkenness was up slightly (26 to 32) while DUI offenses were down from 88 in 2019 to 71 in 2020. There were slight decreases in robbery (four down to one), larceny (76 to 68), drug abuse (28 to 22), and simple assault (96 to 86). Meanwhile, from 2019 to 2020, sex offenses (12 to 13), vehicle theft (11 to 10), and forgery/fraud/embezzlement (48 to 50) remained nearly the same.
It’s hard to draw clear connections between Tahoe/North Tahoe crime stats and the national scene — there’s not a strong significance when the statistical numbers are so low — Powers said. But “… the burglaries, assaults, and shoplifting are the three crime categories which I personally have seen a large uptick recently,” he said. “That is based on the past 20 years I have been a peace officer in the Placer County Tahoe jurisdiction.”
Fire district emergency calls — up and down
Call volumes at North Tahoe Fire Protection District in Tahoe City matched the full-time and visitor populations surges that occurred locally during and after the Covid pandemic lockdown. After the spring of 2020, the district has experienced a continuous rise in calls for emergency services, calls that include not only fears of fire, but also worries about gas leaks and health emergencies.
“This summer was our busiest on record until the Caldor Fire slowed things down,” Erin Holland, the district’s public information officer, said. “During the smoke impacts and forest closures/evacuations, our calls for service decreased to pre-Covid levels, but once things settled down in October, volume went back up.”
The district’s call volume summaries in the three years from 2019 to 2021 show sizeable jumps during the month of June alone — a surge from 175 calls to 233 and 257 respectively, according to Holland. In the months of July, volumes oscillated — from 333 in 2019 to 303 in 2020 to 388 in 2021. August numbers climbed from 272 in 2019 to 297 in 2020 but declined to 239 in 2021 when smoke impacts from nearby fires drove both visitors and residents away.
Wintertime emergency calls reveal a different trend. Holland emphasized that weather — especially snow — can trigger more calls for injuries, car wrecks, and other storm emergencies. “If you remember the ‘Snowmageddon’ of 2017, you can see the impact to our call volume that January through March,” Holland said. In January 2017, alone the number of monthly calls jumped from an average of 215 to 379.
On the other hand, Truckee Fire District’s calls did not soar with the post-pandemic population surges, says Truckee Fire District Chief Bill Seline.
“The call volumes didn’t change much at all, looking at the month-to-month report,” he said. “When Covid happened and we went into shutdown during March and April, we saw call volumes drop off dramatically until about June. People were afraid to go to medical care; they self-treated, or if they went in, they took themselves — they didn’t want people in their houses. The call volume dropped by about 50%, then it started to pick up as there was an exodus out of the cities. Then our call volumes went back to normal.”
There were heart attacks and some notable suicides, Seline said, but their numbers were in the normal range. A campfire and charcoal barbecue ban from two years earlier suppressed accidental fire starts, he said; however, there were extra complaints from neighbors worried about other neighbors’ behaviors or concerned about fire-related behaviors among short-term renters.
The overall local crime numbers may be small, as Powers suggests, but when added to the data of other, similar rural areas, their presence can be significant. To this end, information from law enforcement agencies across the United States is aggregated into a national database.
“We report our Unified Crime Reporting stats to the Department of Justice each month and our crime analysis division reviews this reported data to help us with our agency’s needs,” Placer County’s Aimee Kincade said. “This is a monthly report that is reviewed continually for any crime stat changes in reported offenses as well as crime trends to be on the lookout for or to notify public to be aware.”
That makes for local decisions about local crimes.
* Calls for assistance from the public don’t necessarily exactly match the number of offenses registered in police files. This article focused on the former.
Online Map Plots Crime Calls
Placer County Sheriff’s Office hosts an online Community Crime Map, publicly accessible, that tracks calls for assistance. Updated daily, incidents are represented by color-coded symbols and appear on the digital map at or near where the call originated or the offense occurred. Users can control the data they see by selecting locations within Placer County – such as around Tahoe City or Colfax – and selecting crime types and/or date ranges for up to a year.
“LexisNexis is the company that hosts and runs the Community Crime Map,” explained Angela Musallam, public information officer at the sheriff’s office. “We send them data from our records management system, which they use to populate the map.” The information on the map does not necessarily correspond to an actual crime, but rather reflects crimes as they have been reported to the sheriff’s office. Early crime classifications may change based on the direction of follow-up investigations.
“We do not use it internally for analysis,” Musallam added. “Internally, we have a robust mapping system we use, along with other software tools, to advise patrol sergeants and deputies as to where and what type of crime is occurring.” These internal maps provide data to incident commanders, who can gain situational awareness and deploy and track responding units. The internal maps are available to all deputies and give nearly real-time updates on unit and personnel locations, evacuation notices, and missing person search statuses, among many other incidents.
Formed in 1997, Placer County’s Crime Analysis Unit examines data from criminal activity around the county. Unit analysts identify hot spots and changes in crime trends and advise the sheriff’s office on resource allocation. During critical incidents and active cases, the analysts work with detectives and patrol deputies.
Another way the unit connects to the public is through its Sheriff’s Eagle Eye (SEE) program. “If a businesses or residence has a security camera, the camera owner can register that system with the sheriff’s office,” Musallam said. “If a crime occurs in a particular area, investigators can look at our SEE map and determine if there are any security cameras in the area that may have captured useful footage. Investigators can then contact the camera owner to ask if they would be willing to provide that footage for the investigation. This teamwork between citizens and the sheriff’s office helps us to solve crimes more quickly.”