Palo Alto crime trends before and during the COVID-19 crisis show a significant increase in bicycle and car thefts, but far fewer car accidents and domestic violence incidents, according to data police shared with the community this week.
Across the board, one crime saw a massive rise in Palo Alto: the theft of catalytic converters, which rose by 1,750%.
The data was discussed by police detectives and officers during a virtual Nov. 17 community meeting held over Zoom.
The time period reviewed by department crime analysts spans from March 17 through Oct. 31, in both 2019 and 2020. Officers received 28,195 calls for service during that time period this year, down from 32,803 in 2019 during the same span. Overall, there was a 62% reduction in car accidents, 60% cut in arrests and 80% decrease in citations issued during the period covering the pandemic than the same seven-month stretch in 2019, according to the agency's data.
The coronavirus also added a new category of police calls for service: health order violations. The department didn't have such a category in years past, but officers responded to 957 incidents from March 17 through Oct. 31, police said.
Plunging auto burglaries, growing car thefts
While 2019 saw the greatest spike in a decade of auto burglaries, (934 incidents for the entire year and 557 incidents for the March 17 through Oct. 31 period), there has seen a significant drop in auto burglaries this year. The city had 137 auto burglaries between March and October of 2020, according to department data.
When it came to nonviolent crime, there were 42 residential burglaries in 2019 during the March-October period, which rose to 74 in 2020, a 76% increase. Commercial burglaries are also on the rise, with 64 in 2019 compared to 72 in 2020 during the seven-month span.
Burglary Detective Joshua Waldorph said the number of residential burglaries is deceiving. Many of these incidents have occurred in garages and the thieves never attempt to enter the main residence. Burglars have recently been stealing items such as bicycles from garages, he said, as seen in one overnight burglary last month and another last week that resulted in one arrest.
Theft from cars, a crime of opportunity where people steal from an unlocked vehicle, has gone up from 92 to 136 incidents, a nearly 48% increase.
The biggest jumps in crime involved bicycle thefts, stolen catalytic converters and stolen vehicles, police said. Thieves have taken 88 vehicles during the past seven months compared to 47 in 2019, an 87% increase.
Bicycle thefts, a perennial problem in Palo Alto, jumped from 165 last year during the March-October period to 271 in 2020, a 64% increase. The city's number of bicycle thefts is high, in general, because there are so many bikes throughout the city, Waldorph said.
Mental health-related calls also grew from 133 last year during the March-October period to 146 in 2020, or nearly 10%.
Catalytic converter thefts, which are rising throughout the region and take just minutes to perform, have skyrocketed from eight in 2019 to 148 in 2020 during the COVID-19 period, a 1,750% increase.
"Many of these thefts occur in older Toyota Prius cars due to a rise in precious metals found in the converters in hybrids. They are targeted because they have two power sources — an electric motor and a gas engine — so their converters are used less frequently to process pollutants," Waldorph said.
The parts are easily removed with a car jack and electric power-cutting tools, don't have traceable serial numbers and are often sold to scrap metal dealers, he added.
Violent crime: A mixed bag
Some violent crimes have trended up in Palo Alto during the COVID-19 pandemic between March and October, according to police.
Child abuse is up from 31 cases in 2019 to 38 incidents in 2020, or 22.5%. Family violence, which excludes conflicts between married couples, is up by 140%, from five incidents in 2019 to 12 in 2020, according to police data. Dependent-adult and elder abuse have risen by 11.5% from 26 incidents in 2019 to 29 in 2020.
Arson rose from eight incidents in 2019 to 11 in 2020, or 37.5%.
Other violent offenses dropped in certain categories. Domestic violence incidents are down from 65 last year to 52 in 2020, a 20% decrease credited to officers following up with victims after an incident to make sure that they are safe and have access to resources, Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder said.
Aggravated assaults are down, while robberies, simple assaults, sex offenses and rapes decreased or remained the same, according to the data.
Police can't determine if the numbers are the direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Binder said. Many crimes, particularly theft-related, are cyclical and occur across the entire region. Waldorph said the steep decline in auto burglaries is likely due to more people staying at home and reporting suspicious activity.
Police have also made an effort to increase their presence in neighborhoods, near businesses and at places of worship, where conflicts due to COVID-19 orders and opportunities to commit crimes could be high, Binder said.
While financial crimes have dipped from 152 in 2019 to 147 in 2020 during the same time period, Palo Alto has seen a growth in mail theft, in which thieves intercept checks from mailboxes and "wash" the check by removing the victim's name before they use it to gain access to a bank account, financial crimes Detective Michael Kan said.
"They are also grabbing mail in bulk from mail trucks when the driver is distracted," he said, adding thieves can cart away a tray of mail at a time.
Recently, the most common scam involves phone calls from people who claim a grandchild is in trouble, threaten an arrest warrant or contend that the Internal Revenue Service or another agency is filing a lawsuit, he said. The victims are coerced into purchasing gift cards or wiring money to resolve the situation.
In some computer scams, the caller asks for help in fixing a computer remotely or claims the victim's device is linked to a criminal enterprise such as a child pornography ring. These criminals convince people to give up their passwords or bank information and their identification, he said.
For more information on how to stay protected against various crimes, watch the virtual town hall: