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Look on the bright side: Arrests are way down during the coronavirus outbreak

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan.
Middlesex DA Marian Ryan.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

About 100 defendants are usually arraigned for crimes committed over the weekend in Massachusetts’ largest county. This Monday, the number of people arraigned in Middlesex County’s 11 district courts was a mere 20, a drop of more than 80 percent.

Partly, that’s because there are fewer people to arrest: the same massive shutdown that has turned so many into shut-ins also keeps potential criminals off the street -- or at least out of the now-closed bars. It’s also because law enforcement leaders, mindful that police are at risk of coronavirus, too, are telling officers not to be too aggressive with the handcuffs.

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“We are asking our police to make arrests only when public safety absolutely requires it,” said Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan. “Arrests are down.”

Less than two weeks into a tidal wave of cancellations and closures to stave off the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, the drop in arrests is one of the few upsides.

In Boston over the last week, arrests dropped by almost 50 percent compared to the same week last year, from 243 to 123, in part because of the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day events. State police arrests dipped from 369 to 285 over the same period, in large measure because there are drastically fewer drivers on the highways -- and, therefore, fewer drunk drivers.

In Quincy, arrests were down by a third and in Haverhill, the percentage decrease was almost 45 percent.

In Boston Municipal Court, where clerk’s office have remained open even as the courts themselves have closed, the number of new criminal cases has dropped to near zero over the past week. About 15 cases have been filed, compared to 100 or more in a typical week.

“Criminals are staying in like everyone else,” said Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini.

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But there’s more to it than that. Last week, the Supreme Judicial Court ordered a halt to all jury trials until at least April 21, giving prosecutors an incentive to release arrested defendants rather than triggering their constitutional right to a speedy trial. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins ordered prosecutors to seek a 60-day continuance for all criminal cases where the defendant is not in jail.

DA Ryan is urging police in Middlesex County not to make arrests unless absolutely necessary -- both to protect police and ease the burden on the court system. Even in normal times, she said, the office rarely seeks bail on defendants accused of low-level offenses.

As a result, police and state troopers say they are not going out of their way to make arrests knowing that defendants are likely to be released anyway.

“We’re being told to lay low and answer calls but not to do anything proactive,” said one state trooper, who asked to remain anonymous because troopers are not allowed to speak to the media. "We don’t want to be out there stopping cars. If we have to, we will, but we don’t want to put ourselves in harm’s way. "

Police officials insist that officers are continuing to do their job protecting the public. State police spokesman David Procopio points out that arrests resulting from state police investigations have not dropped. The decline is only among highway patrols where there are simply far fewer vehicles to police.

“The presence of Massachusetts State Police on our roads in our communities remains constant and consistent, and we continue to respond to emergencies and enforce the law,” said Procopio.

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However, top state police officials have urged troopers to avoid arrests in certain cases.

On Thursday, state police Colonel Christopher Mason told troopers that, when responding to calls that aren’t serious enough to require mandatory arrest, such as violent offenses, they should “conduct enforcement in a manner less likely to contribute to disease exposure or transmission" by issuing summonses and citations by mail.

Boston Police spokesman John Boyle said the department is “protecting the people of the city of Boston,” adding that officers have always had discretion to decline to make arrests “for certain offenses” all year around.

"Make no mistake we will uphold the law and will make arrests if necessary.” he said.

But, while crime is generally down, some prosecutors and experts said they fear a spike in one category -- domestic violence, perhaps a reflection of families spending more time in close quarters.

Earlier this week, two brothers were arrested by Stoughton police for allegedly getting into a fist fight over a case of beer, Norfolk County officials said. They were released without being arraigned. and ordered to come to court in May.

“We’re getting a steady dose of domestics,” said Norfolk County district attorney Michael Morrissey,. He said his office, as well as all other prosecutors’ offices around the state, has specialists “ready to answer any emergency that deals with domestic violence.”

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Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox said that while certain kinds of crime are likely to go down during this period of restricted activity, it makes sense that domestic violence would increase.

“More people are indoors with family members,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t used to being with their spouse, or boyfriend or girlfriend 24 hours a day. I worry about domestic violence, intimate partner homicide, child abuse. Kids are there 24 hours a day. Parents’ nerves are on edge."

On the other hand, Fox said he is not afraid that desperate people who have lost their jobs, or are frustrated and overwhelmed, might turn to crime.

“If someone who is a law abiding individual loses their job, their instinct isn’t to go out and commit a crime," he said. "There are other means of getting help. I’m not saying it won’t happen but if 20 percent unemployment happens, I don’t see a 20 percent surge in criminality by unemployed individuals.”


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.