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Sonoma County public safety agencies see reports drop as risk for responders rises

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It seems ordering people to stay indoors is a good antidote for bad behavior.

While it’s early to draw long-term conclusions, public safety agencies throughout Sonoma County are reporting far fewer calls for service since the county health officer issued orders for most residents to stay at home.

A normal day for public safety agencies in the county might include multiple calls for fights, burglaries and reported drunken drivers.

Today, with residents ordered to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus, more often the calls are for things like a suspicious person walking in the neighborhood or a business operating when it should be closed.

Front-line staff — dispatchers, officers on the beat, firefighters — all say there’s been a noticeable drop in residents seeking help.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Summer Gloeckner said her department has seen a distinct reduction in calls and that lighter traffic has led to fewer collisions.

“The calls have reduced significantly,” she said. “I think it’s because people are staying home. … People are just hanging out, just waiting for all this to be done.”

In the first week of the stay-at-home order, which went into effect March 18, total calls to Santa Rosa police were down 13% from the same week in 2019 (4,204 this year and 4,855 in 2019).

Daily calls were down 5% to 22% over the seven-day period, according to numbers provided by dispatch supervisor Gina Giomi.

Sgt. Dave Linscomb, who consults the overnight watch commander’s report as he begins his day at police headquarters, said the activity has been subdued in the wake of the order.

“We’ve had a lot of small calls,” he said.

The effect may be even more prominent for the California Highway Patrol.

Officer David DeRutte does a daily traffic report on the radio to alert commuters to highway crashes or choke points.

“I think every single report I did yesterday was nothing — no slowdowns, no crashes,” he said Thursday.

Total call volume in the CHP’s Sonoma County enforcement area is down about 34% in the aftermath of widespread home isolation.

The CHP is still at full staff and is patrolling as usual, he said, but officers are taking precautions during self-initiated stops to reduce opportunities to spread the virus.

Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies are doing the same, said Sgt. Juan Valencia.

Total calls for service in the county for this past week versus the same week last year are down 12%, he said.

More telling is the number of officer-initiated encounters in the same week: 120 last year, 44 this year.

“We’re not necessarily going to look the other way,” Valencia said, “but maybe it’s one of those things they’re not going to stop someone to educate them about a traffic law.”

Deputies, CHP and other law enforcement officers are all taking more reports over the phone.

Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Jason Jenkins said it’s definitely been quieter lately for his department.

“The calls aren’t drastically down, but are definitely down, which is good. But we’re still going to a lot of non-urgent, low-level calls, which isn’t good,” he said. “It would be nice if people would take a little better care of problems themselves.”

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For example, his team was called to a stubbed toe injury this past week, he said.

Those type of calls are frustrating, several dispatchers said, because they needlessly put first responders at close contact with others, potentially at risk of spreading the virus.

Dispatchers for multiple agencies said they’ve been fielding calls from people asking about where to get COVID-19 testing or reporting a business they believe shouldn’t be open amid the countywide shutdown. Someone called the Healdsburg Fire Department to report people playing basketball, a complaint about social distancing.

Valencia, from the Sheriff’s Office, said one benefit of the shelter-in-place order is that home break-ins may be prevented simply because people are home during the day.

In Petaluma, police are encouraging residents to file reports online if possible or on the phone, and officers aren’t contacting as many citizens face-to-face.

“I think the public is understanding that it’s a whole different dynamic now,” Lt. Ed Crosby said. “Typically, we’re not accustomed to telling our people to hunker down and not initiate things. We’ll take action on something that’s occurring — a DUI, acts of violence — but some of the lesser stuff that can wait, we’re letting that wait.

“For things that can be done over the phone, it minimizes social interaction. We’re practicing what we preach.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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