Police Response to Domestic Violence Calls During Covid-19

Victims of domestic violence (DV) are yet another casualty of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. When American citizens were advised to stay home this spring, police departments across the country reported a decrease in the incidence of crimes such as car theft and armed robberies. DV calls, however, increased sharply.

Obtaining sufficient data on how DV rates have been impacted by the pandemic on a federal level is tricky, as most statistics tend to be released on a city level, and only major ones have done so. In Portland, for example, the local police reported a 22% increase in DV calls after schools were ordered to close on March 16th. 

Similar trends have been reported across the globe, especially in Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. High-income countries are not the exception, though; reports of DV also became more frequent in Australia, France and Germany when lockdowns were imposed.

Trapped with the aggressor

Typically, a DV victim would have certain periods of calm during the day, especially when both the aggressor and the victim have a job. Kids would also be sheltered from the situation at home during classes. Unfortunately, that has not been the case for many couples during the pandemic. Several DV reports received by the police have involved a husband who had recently turned increasingly violent as a result of an increased alcohol consumption, coupled with a recent lay off.

To put it into perspective, 383 people called the DV Hotline in Chicago during March. By April, the number had risen to 549. The San Antonio Police Department reported an 18% increase in reports following the closure of schools. In Jefferson County, Alabama, a 27% increase has been reported by the Sheriff’s office; the biggest spike so far. 

An intuitive approach

The constant presence of the aggressor, however, has made calling for help even riskier, and whenever reports can be made, not many details can be provided. Because of this, police departments often have to act with a very limited knowledge of the situation.

Normally, police departments would ask questions regarding the aggressor’s whereabouts and if they are under the effects of alcohol or drugs, the incidence of physical abuse or the presence of weapons in the household. This would allow officers to develop a strategy. 

Now that crucial information can’t be easily shared, authorities have had to rely more on intuition and experience. Paying additional attention to facts such as the length of the call, if the victim was pretending to be on the phone with someone else, or if they hung up abruptly has become the best, if not only way, for police departments to paint a picture of the victim’s situation.

The presence of strangulation, or lack thereof, is also crucial; when this happens, lethality can increase by 750%. Even in normal circumstances, victims rarely report it without being asked. Now, authorities often develop some kind of special code during the call in order to find out about this key detail without the aggressor finding out. 

Once dispatched, police officers have to be as discreet as possible. Standard practices such as not parking in front of the household and not standing in front of the door when knocking still have to be observed. 

Police motorbike 2

What is different now, is that the uncertainty regarding what they’re about to encounter makes acting a more complex process. For instance, some departments have advised their officers not to act prior to the arrival of backup. And once they have entered the household, weapons or any other potential threat have to be identified rapidly. 

The other pandemic that has to be eradicated

DV is one of the most underreported crimes in the US. Each minute, 24 people become victims of sexual, physical or psychological violence by an intimate partner in the US, according to statistics by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Moreover, 30 to 60% of aggressors also abuse the children under their care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an alarming surge in the incidence of DV. Fortunately, police departments across the US have been able to adapt to the present circumstances and develop new, more appropriate strategies. 

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