Pandemic likely contributor to auto theft and vandalism spike, police chief says

Pandemic likely contributor to auto theft and vandalism spike, police chief says
(Photo/Alexandria Police Department)

By Olivia Anderson |

The Alexandria Police Department released its annual crime report for incidents in 2020 on April 13, revealing a notable 19.14% increase in Part 1 crimes last year, including larcenies and auto thefts. According to APD, the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in the dramatic increase in certain types of crime.

The report is divided into Part I and Part II crimes. Part I crimes are considered more serious, according to the APD summary, because they are perpetrated against people and property. These include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft.

On the other hand, Part II crimes, otherwise known as nuisance crimes, include drug and narcotic offenses, driving under the influence, gambling, vandalism, disorderly conduct, prostitution, drunkenness and liquor law violations.

Dramatic – yet opposite – changes occurred in both categories last year: While Part I crimes rose 19.14 % between 2019 and 2020, Part II crimes fell by 14.7%.

In looking at Part I crime, larcenies increased by 18.16% between 2019 and 2020 from 2,093 cases to 2,473 cases, and auto thefts by 54.08% from 233 cases to 359.

Source: APD Crime Analysis Unit

APD Police Chief Michael Brown suggested that this increase could be partially attributed to a “change in behavior” for residents during the pandemic, in which several common trends occurred.

Many auto theft cases last year involved owners leaving vehicles unlocked or unattended for long periods of time with the keys in the ignition – an increasingly common scenario that Brown postulates is due to the lockdown, when people are not leaving their houses as often as they were pre-pandemic.

“There’s a turnover … fast forward to lockdown, especially in urbanized areas – if you found a parking spot and you were going to be locked down in your house, you’d leave that car and not move it because you didn’t want to lose the parking spot,” Brown said in an interview. “So, in some cases, we had people that would go a long period of time before they took a look at whether their car was still there.”

It is not just Alexandria that has seen an uptick in auto theft. The Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department reported a 49% increase in auto thefts from 2019 to 2020, from 1,537 in 2019 to 3,137 incidents in 2020.

The issue has grown so dire, in fact, that earlier this year the MPD announced the creation of a task force composed of specialized detectives to investigate the sharp rise in carjackings, auto thefts and unauthorized use of vehicle offenses throughout D.C.

In a news release posted on April 13, Brown encouraged residents to take “simple steps” to “reduce their risk of becoming victims” of auto theft such as checking their vehicles daily and moving them periodically, ensuring that doors are locked and removing any valuables from inside.

According to the statement, only a small number of thefts involved the use of force, such as breaking windows or trunks.

This phrasing upset some residents, however, who felt that it placed the onus on vehicle owners to constantly examine their property rather than on perpetrators not to commit crimes.

“The APD statement really does blame victims of crime … [that] it’s their own fault for being crime victims,” resident Frank Putzu commented on the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria Facebook Page. “Words fail to describe how embarrassing that statement is to the city.”

Another resident, Kathy Bond McAfee, added that many residents don’t feel safe in the city because of the increase in crime calling for “a change” in government leadership.

But Brown stated that APD “wouldn’t at all” suggest victims were to blame. According to Brown, APD only suggests preventative measures for citizens to mitigate their chance of becoming targets as much as possible.

“This isn’t about blaming anybody; this is just about what the experience has been,” Brown said, emphasizing that those who violate the laws are the ones APD seeks to investigate. “Our job isn’t to blame people; our job is to prevent them from becoming victims, not only in auto theft but in other [crimes] too.”

One example of such “other crimes” is burglaries, which climbed from 117 cases in 2019 to 126 in 2020, a 7.7% increase.

Residential burglaries dropped 29%, from 69 cases in 2019 to 49 in 2020, which Brown said is likely due to the fact that people were spending more time at home during lockdown. Commercial burglaries, however, increased by 47.5%, from 40 to 59 incidents. “The places that were closed, that weren’t being attended, were not homes, they were businesses. So, you see [many] commercial business crimes that have taken place this year,” Brown said of the upsurge.

Brown also speculated that the “economics of the pandemic” might have influenced the types of items stolen. In the way of petty larcenies, for instance, personal hygiene products, laundry soap and detergent pods have all become major targets for theft.

Though the exact reason for this is unknown, Brown said that a marketplace for these items certainly exists, as does an individual need.

“I think some of it is that people want to market them in an area where there’s a demand for it, or more importantly, there are people involved in this that quite frankly are probably under some economic hardship that has taken place this last year,” Brown said. “This may be, on an individualized basis, an effort to try and make ends meet.”

There were three homicides in the city in 2020, an increase from two murders in 2019, and all three homicides occurred in the West End.

The first homicide occurred on July 29 after the suspect, Ibrahim Bouaichi, 33, allegedly killed his girlfriend, Karla Elizabeth Dominguez. Bouaichi had been released on bond in April, despite being indicted by a Grand Jury for allegedly raping Dominguez in October 2019. Bouaichi died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after his car crashed during a chase with the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force.

On Sept. 30, officers found John Pope, a 57-year-old Alexandria resident, in the 5900 block of Quantrell Avenue with an upper body injury. He died en route to a local hospital. The suspect in the case, Tavon Lanier, 19, of Alexandria, was recently indicted on five charges that could result in a life sentence, plus 13 years.

The third homicide occurred on Nov. 7 in the 4800 block of W. Braddock Road. The victim, Yousef Tarek Omar, 23, of Texas, was found with a gunshot wound to the upper body and later died at the hospital. No suspect has yet been identified.

The number of aggravated assaults also increased from 196 cases in 2019 to 208 cases in 2020.

The number of reported rapes decreased by 40% from 20 in 2019 to 12 in 2020, but APD and Alexandria’s Sexual Assault center expressed concern that rape and domestic violence cases may not have been reported at a time when victims had to stay at home where the incidents occurred, according to a news release.

While Part II crime types decreased from 2019 to 2020, reported destruction and vandalism cases increased by 28.48%, from 790 in 2019 to 1,015 cases in 2020, a number Brown said is “not usually this way” and, once again, likely has “pandemic” written all over it.

Source: APD Crime Analysis Unit

“We had a number of folks that I think kind of felt like they were cooped up, got out and got a little crazy at times. We had a couple of those cases,” Brown said.

Destruction and vandalism situations often involve instances where cars are broken into but there’s no indication that the vehicle was subject to burglary or auto theft. Damaging personal property with signs, leaflets and paint is also common.

Although some residents have argued that the city’s 2020 crime data report made “no mention” of shots fired calls, which became more frequent throughout 2020, it should be noted that these cases, also known as weapon violations, reside under the canopy of vandalism and destruction crimes.

Brown said these incidents get filed under Part II crime when officers arrive at a scene with casings or other evidence that shots were fired, but ultimately conclude that no one was wounded and no property was damaged.

According to Brown, there was a 48.6% increase in shots fired calls, from 37 cases in 2019 to 55 in 2020. To combat both Part I and Part II crimes, APD has appointed investigators for every case to “look for links” in both the city and surrounding jurisdictions, Brown said. APD also met with security teams of affected big-box retailers to discuss their enforcement of loss prevention and implemented patrols in certain areas where intelligence suggested organized groups are working. Brown said that similar criminal activity with similar modi operandi had been occurring in Arlington and Fairfax counties, though he did not specify the nature of the organized group types.

“There’s a lot of different things we do depending on where the facts lead us and depending on where the cases lead us, and we’re actively engaged on all these particular crimes trying to prevent them but more importantly to solve the ones that are open,” Brown said.