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How Will COVID-19 Affect Arrests in California?

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The arrest rate in California is at its lowest level in decades, and as the COVID-19 crisis sends regions into economic and social disruption, further changes may emerge. Local law enforcement agencies are already adopting new arrest strategies to ensure public safety, to protect officers as well as to minimize jail crowding.

With some police departments starting to issue warnings or citations rather than make arrests, the number of misdemeanor arrests may fall. Departments are also delaying planned arrests unless doing so increases any risk to public safety, issuing summonses in the field rather than bringing detainees into a station for booking, and directing officers to take police reports online or over the phone instead of in person.

Measured as the incidence of arrests made per 100,000 in the population, the arrest rate in California had reached a peak of over 8,000 in 1989, and has since fallen fairly steadily, to under 3,500 in 2016. That 58% decline applies to rates of arrests made for felonies as well as for misdemeanors. This number reflects, in part, a parallel drop in crime rates, which are also at historic lows.

But it also reflects changes in legislation–in particular, the 2014 implementation of Proposition 47, which reclassified many lower-level property and drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and the corresponding changes in law enforcement agencies’ priorities regarding the mix of offenses likely to be prosecuted.

Recommendations around arrests during the COVID-19 pandemic apply only to nonviolent misdemeanors and other lesser infractions. For instance, departments are advising officers to issue a ticket or citation for such crimes as vandalism, or low-level theft, rather than apprehend the perpetrator. Therefore, large-scale adoption of these recommendations would lead, all things being equal, to a larger share of arrests made for felonies, even if felony arrests themselves remained unchanged.

The share of arrests for felony offenses had been increasing gradually for decades, but fell dramatically after Proposition 47 was implemented. Felony offenses typically involve situations requiring immediate response, and officers have less discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest or take some other action. For example, an officer stopping a person for drug possession could issue a citation rather than make an arrest, but an officer responding to an aggravated assault is often obligated to take a suspect in for booking.

In these unprecedented times, however, all things are not likely to remain equal, and as the COVID-19 crisis evolves, changing social and economic circumstances will affect individual behavior, community responses, and law enforcement reactions.

Preliminary reports from four major California cities suggest that incidences of crime—property as well as violent—have dropped considerably since shelter-in-place orders went into effect. However, there is early evidence of an uptick in domestic violence. Monitoring the new approaches law enforcement is taking, and the outcomes of these interactions, will be key to determining which approaches are best suited to maintaining public health and safety.

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