Pleas for help to domestic violence hotlines are conducted more often in whispers lately in Arizona, because victims have few private moments to make calls, said Tasha Menaker, who heads a statewide coalition of domestic violence organizations. In Austin, Texas, a victims counselor for the police department said because people suffering abuse are having a harder time finding space to reach out for help, more calls are coming from neighbors or other witnesses.
It’s always hard to measure the scope of domestic violence—and it’s particularly hard during a pandemic when families are essentially confined to homes, where a victim can’t easily escape an abuser. News outlets across the country have written about advocates’ concerns that crime statistics are masking an uncounted rise in domestic violence, relying on anecdotes and fragmented data points.
When The Marshall Project examined three American cities, we were able to drill deeper into the data and sketch a fuller picture. Based on police reports in these cities—Chicago, Austin, and Chandler, Arizona—domestic violence appears to be dropping, as have reports of all crimes. (A similar trend has been observed in New York City.) But domestic violence numbers are falling less than crime overall, and in some cases the kinds of abuse reported is more violent. That may be because it’s harder for victims to get help during the pandemic.
Assessing crime as it happens is difficult. Most police departments wait months or as much as a year to release data about major crimes in their cities. Relatively few publish data on police reports in a timely manner, within days of incidents. A review of more than 40 cities’ public crime data found Chicago, Austin and Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, to be the only ones that also specifically flag domestic violence incidents in their public data.
These cities in different parts of the country range from about 250,000 residents in Chandler to more than 2.7 million in Chicago. By reviewing the data each city’s police department publishes on the web, The Marshall Project found that in recent weeks overall crime dropped by nearly 50 percent compared to the same weeks over the last three years, but domestic violence did not entirely follow suit. In Chicago, for example, domestic violence reports to the police fell by 23 percent when crime overall dropped by 43 percent.
As Crime Declined, So Did Police Reports of Domestic Violence
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, advocates and scholars have warned about a wave of violence behind closed doors. Our analysis found that domestic violence reports have declined in three cities when compared to the same weeks in previous years, though not as dramatically as crime overall.
Domestic violence is notoriously difficult to track using police data—even during normal times, only about half of victims of violent domestic crimes call the police when they are assaulted by a family member, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Stay-at-home orders, historic unemployment and other social factors related to the pandemic can make victims even less likely to call, which means public statistics may not represent what is actually happening in homes across the country.
Survivors always have a cost-benefit analysis in their minds, police and victim advocates say. Sometimes tolerating abuse is safer when the alternative is moving into a shelter where victims and their children may be exposed to the coronavirus, or when the abuser is the primary breadwinner as tens of millions lose their jobs. When victims do call police, a single report can belie many violent incidents that went unreported amid a pattern of abuse, says Margaret Bassett, training director at the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Women stay because they’re afraid to leave, and they leave when they’re afraid to stay,” says Bassett, paraphrasing something she said she once heard from a survivor.
One way to peek at the gap of underreporting is by comparing 911 calls with police incident reports. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early March, the Chicago Police Department has been seeing more and more domestic violence-related service calls—as many as 13-percent more than last year at this time—even as domestic violence police reports decline, according to Aileen Robinson, the police’s domestic violence operation coordinator there (the department does not make 911 data available online). This means fewer victims are following through with filing complaints after they or their neighbors called the police.
Looking at the types of domestic violence in the three cities paints a more disturbing picture. Even though domestic violence reports are going down, the most violent categories of domestic crimes aren’t. Among the domestic incidents reported by the Chicago Police Department during the month of March and the first two weeks of April were three murders and 78 shootings, both of which represent a slight increase from the year before.
In Austin, the police department documented 66 strangulations in the same time period—roughly the same number as the year before—which scholars who study domestic violence say is a major red flag for murder in the future.
Robinson and other experts said the novel coronavirus gives abusers a lot more tools for manipulation.
For example, some abusers are using the spread of COVID-19 in jails to persuade victims to feel sorry for them.
“I definitely have heard victims being concerned about the batterer going to jail and getting sick there,” said Victoria Ortiz, a victim’s services counselor at the Austin Police Department.
Ortiz also said that officials from Travis County, where Austin is located, are trying to process people quickly to stem the spread of coronavirus in jail. This means alleged batterers are released much faster than usual, making it harder for victims to make a safety plan before their abuser returns home.
“We’ve had a couple of aggravated assaults when they’ve basically walked through jail,” Ortiz said. “When typically it’s a day or two before they get out.”
Many victims who can normally call for help from their jobs, or when their abuser is at work, no longer have those options. At the same time, more neighbors are home to witness or overhear abuse, Ortiz said. What calls do come from victims often come from the corner store or grocery.
That’s why Rachel Teicher, director of the intimate partner violence Intervention program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s National Network for Safe Communities, said essential businesses such as pharmacies and grocery stores should become a new hub where survivors can connect with advocates.
Health care providers who are conducting telehealth meetings can also screen for abuse, and school districts that are providing students with free tablets for remote learning can include applications for survivors to connect with law enforcement or advocates discreetly.
“For many domestic violence survivors, calling law enforcement might be the last resort,” Teicher said, adding, “The services domestic violence survivors have been relying on may look different now, but they are more important than ever.”