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Cops: LI commercial burglaries, auto thefts spike amid pandemic crime drop

A Suffolk County probationary police officer walks down

A Suffolk County probationary police officer walks down Main Street in Bay Shore on April 29.  Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Although most crimes dipped on Long Island during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, opportunistic lawbreakers were out in force, leading to a sharp spike in commercial burglaries and robberies as well as auto thefts, according to Nassau and Suffolk police.

And as Long Island slowly reopens and the weather warms up, police officials in both counties said they are preparing for a likely uptick in crimes and taking stock of the March and April crime stats to prepare.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said he expects a busy summer for his officers as usual as people emerge from self-isolation and venture out, in many cases, for the first time in months.

“People want to let loose," Ryder said. "Our advice is to let loose, go to the beach, do some exercise. And if you’re going to drink, drink responsibly.”

Both Ryder and his Suffolk counterpart, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, said they will use their departments' crime stats to deploy officers to potential hot spots this summer.

Hart said she's been on the phone weekly with commercial groups making sure “they take steps to secure their businesses.”

She has good reason.

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Commercial burglaries spiked in both counties in March and April during the peak of the pandemic, compared with the same period last year, according to Nassau and Suffolk crime statistics.

Cops in Suffolk have found that vehicle owners continue to be careless, leaving doors unlocked and key fobs in plain view. Because of the pandemic, there were more cars on driveways and streets while people remained home, Hart said.

Just last week, as Long Island readied to get back to work, Hart's department released a statement warning people to keep a closer eye on their vehicles after auto thefts jumped by more than 30% from the start of the year to mid-April, compared to the same period in 2019.

“Always lock your car doors, it’s that simple,” Hart said in the statement.

The reason for the uptick amid the overall pandemic decline in crime, Ryder said, had to do with criminals taking advantage of desolate streets and storefronts. But COVID-19 also caused his department to prioritize his officers’ safety, Ryder said.

“We weren’t as aggressive. … We were afraid of the virus. Nobody really knew what it was,” Ryder said. “We pulled our cops back from interacting during routine car stops.”

Ryder said criminals constantly adjust to new circumstances and the pandemic was no different.

“When there is an opportunity," he said, "these criminals always find a way to make the most of it for themselves.”

Nassau commercial burglaries shot up 28% in March and nearly double in April to 44% compared to those two months in 2019, according to department statistics. The county also saw a 57% increase in commercial robberies in March and 30% in April when contrasted with the same months last year, police said.

Commercial burglaries in Suffolk County jumped 24% in March from the same period in 2019 and they spiked by a whopping 137.5% in April over last year, department statistics show. 

Suffolk saw a nearly 19% drop in auto thefts in March compared to last year, but thieves were back at work in April. Auto thefts climbed by 45% in April compared to the same period a year ago.

In Nassau, auto thefts rose 40% in March and 62% in April compared to 2019, according to department statistics.

Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Law in Manhattan, who is also a former crime analyst with the NYPD, said the rise in business burglaries on Long Island during the pandemic mirrored a spike in similar crimes in New York City.

“It’s a convenient time for offenders to be committing these types of crimes,” Herrmann said. “It’s kind of like a buffet to [burglars]. They can steal from stores that are closed. They don’t have to worry about getting caught because the store owner is not there.”

He said residents play a large role preventing crimes and helping cops nab suspects.

“It’s the average citizen who sees someone break into a house or business," Herrmann said. "The more eyes on the street you have, the more likely you’re going to get caught."

Hart agreed, saying a shuttered business “obviously creates a more attractive opportunity for a criminal.”

The pandemic, however, did lead to a dramatic reduction in crime overall across Long Island. Cops said prior to COVID-19, crime had spiked significantly because of criminal justice reforms that took effect in January.

Ryder said major crimes in Nassau shot up 18% by the first week of March this year compared with the same time in 2019. But, the deadly virus led to a reversal of that trend, officials said. According to the Nassau police statistics, crimes dropped in March and April in categories such as felony and misdemeanor assaults and grand larceny with no homicides.

According to Suffolk County cops, property crime was down 7.5% in March and April compared to the same time in 2019. Records also show that violent crime dropped 8.5% in March and April compared to last year at the same time.

Ryder said, overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge in his 37-year career.

“You see your enemy, you fight your enemy, you can handle your enemy,” Ryder said. “You can’t see this enemy. It’s hard to fight it. It’s hard to prepare for it.”

Long Island Crime By The Numbers

Nassau County

Commercial robberies:

March 2019, 7 March 2020, 11, a 57% increase

April 2019, 10 April 2020, 13, a 30% increase

Commercial burglaries:

March 2019, 18 March 2020, 23, a 28% increase

April 2019, 32 April 2020, 46, a 44% increase

Auto thefts:

March 2019, 25 March 2020, 35, a 40% increase

April 2019, 29 April 2020, 47, a 62% increase

Suffolk County

Commercial burglaries:

March 2019, 33 March 2020, 41, a 24% increase

April 2019, 24 April 2020, 57, a 137% increase

Auto theft:

March 2019, 59 March 2020, 48, a 18.6% decrease

April 2019, 53 April 2020, 77, a 45.4% increase

Source: Nassau and Suffolk police

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