Local law enforcement answered a higher number of calls for domestic disturbances last month after East Valley residents were told to stay home in order to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Agencies in Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa reported subtle increases in its number of domestic-related calls over the last few weeks, but some say the data’s not clear enough to conclude whether Arizona’s stay-at-home order is to blame.
Though the Mesa Police Department saw a small increase in the number of family fight calls last month, the agency claims the uptick is not enough to suggest it’s related to stay-at-home directives.
Mesa Police got about 80 more calls for domestic fights in March than it received in February. But Detective Nik Rasheta said the extra calls were not beyond what Mesa’s experienced in the past.
In May 2019, Mesa Police received about the same level of fight calls per day as what the agency experienced in March 2020.
Mesa’s Victim Services Unit had fewer in-person contacts with residents between March 16 and April 12, but the number of people contacting the unit by phone increased substantially during that time frame.
And yet the number of new domestic violence cases assigned to Mesa’s detectives has been dropping since mid-February.
It appears Mesa’s not yet gone outside the regular ebbs and flows it sees throughout the year, Rasheta added, but the agency’s keeping an eye on the data to spot any troubling trends that may be happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chandler Police officers responded to at least 522 domestic calls for fights, assaults and trespassing in March – a notable jump from the 364 calls received in February.
Last month further appears to be an outlier when comparing it to the call logs of previous years. Chandler Police reported getting 454 domestic-related calls in March 2019 and 438 calls in March 2018.
It’s the same trend observed elsewhere across the country as police departments see a rise in calls for domestic violence after Americans were instructed to stay home indefinitely until the health pandemic ends.
Sgt. Jason McClimans emphasized that Chandler’s call numbers don’t necessarily mean an act of domestic violence was actually committed – but rather that someone had initially reported a possible disturbance.
The agency’s online arrest log indicates March 2020 didn’t show an exponentially higher number of arrests for domestic-related crimes compared to February or January.
A closer snapshot of the agency’s data demonstrates how Chandler cops have remained busy responding to domestic disputes during the statewide shutdown.
At 10:30 a.m. on April 4, Chandler Police arrested a 34-year-old woman for criminal damage and fighting at a residence on Kingbird Drive.
Four hours later, a 32-year-old man was charged with violating an order of protection a few miles away on California Street.
Chandler Police then detained a 38-year-old man for fighting on Folley Street at 7:30 p.m. Less than an hour later, a 29-year-old man was arrested for assault at an apartment complex on Federal Street.
At least two more men would be cited for domestic violence charges by the end of the night.
The agency’s arrest logs show officers make arrests for domestic crimes on a nearly daily basis – long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced families to stay indoors.
But April 4 stands out as a day that appeared to be particularly active.
The extra calls for domestic disturbances have not forced Chandler Police to reshuffle resources among the agency’s units, McClimans added.
Its Family Advocacy Center, where victims of sex crimes and child abuse often go to report crimes, has not experienced a significant uptick in victims seeking refuge from abusive relatives.
But some advocates worry this period may only be the calm before the storm and believe more victims may suddenly reach out for help once the pandemic starts to subside.
Tasha Menaker, co-chief executive officer of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said her nonprofit’s hotline has recently seen a 15-percent increase in calls from victims wanting to file restraining orders, find a shelter or ask for legal advice.
The pandemic could be trapping even more victims from not reaching out for help, Menaker said, because their abuser is always around and they may not feel safe calling the coalition’s hotline.
“It might feel very dangerous to try and look at other options outside of leaving the home,” Menaker said, “but maybe as things settle down a little bit. We’re kind of worried we might see a spike at that time as people then try to exit the home.”
Before the public health crisis, domestic violence shelters in the East Valley were already having trouble placing clients in apartments they could afford on their own.
Rising rents across the Valley has made cheap rentals increasingly sparse and has been creating another barrier for victims to not leave their abuser.
“That’s a significant reason why survivors don’t leave,” Menaker added. “They just don’t have any place to go.”
Menaker’s coalition has some funding available to help survivors pay the first month’s rent on a new apartment, but those funds are becoming an increasingly finite resource since the nonprofit’s had to postpone all its fundraising events until after the pandemic ends.
Most domestic violence shelters across the Valley continue to remain open, but some say the ongoing pandemic hasn’t curbed the constant need for available beds.
My Sister’s Place, a domestic violence shelter located near Chandler, is regularly at its capacity and demand for the shelter’s beds hasn’t slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jean Christofferson, a spokesperson for the shelter, said its help hotline has been getting more calls in recent weeks as its staff continues trying to serve the clients they already have.
A New Leaf, which operates a domestic violence shelter near Mesa, has also seen more clients reaching out for assistance during the last few weeks.
The shelter operates a temporary overflow program that attempts to place clients in alternative housing or hotels when its shelter is out of rooms.
The number of clients seeking assistance from the overflow program is 30 percent higher than this same time last year, according to New Leaf spokesman Tanner Swanson.
This sudden growth in demand is “shocking,” Swanson added, and New Leaf’s caseworkers are concerned that clients stuck in dangerous relationships aren’t getting the help they need.
Other police departments in the East Valley have noticed some changes in the number of domestic disturbances reported in recent weeks, but nothing that’s alarmed agencies of a potential crisis that’s the result of COVID-19’s movement restrictions.
The Scottsdale Police Department reported at least 30 domestic-related incidents between March 19 and April 13, according to an online database.
That number is more than what was reported during the same time frame in 2019 but less than in 2018.
Officer Kevin Watts, a spokesman for the agency, said Scottsdale has not seen enough data to conclude there’s been any recent crime trends that can be tied to COVID-19.
Thirty-eight more incidents of domestic violence have so far been reported to Gilbert Police this year compared to 2019.
The town was already observing slightly higher numbers before the pandemic started to hit in early March and that trend’s been continuing into April.
Information on resources for victims of domestic violence can be found at acesdv.org.