SIOUX FALLS (KELO) — In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic another public health issue is lurking.
Domestic violence calls to police have increased in Sioux Falls and other parts of the nation since March 15. So have mental health calls.
Researchers are already compiling data on domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since at least 1977, the Center for Disease Control has dedicated time and resources toward violence as a public health issue.
“…there’s a lot of uncertainty for residents of our city,” Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns said. “That creates a lot of pressure-cooker situations for sure.”
If a relationship already has an unstable environment, COVID-19 measures such as physical social distance, job loss, working from home, school building closures and the uncertainty about the coronavirus and the economy can increase the instability in a relationship, Burns said.
Coping with COVID-19 can also be more difficult if a person has pre-existing mental health issues, Burns said.
“It wears a person down who is well adjusted,” Burns said.
A pandemic isn’t a natural disaster and not all assaults or domestic assaults involve sexual violence, but studies on violence within and after natural disasters can provide some insights on what is happening during COVID-19.
A 2005 report from the World Health Organization cited tension and stress as one of five reasons why sexual violence increases during a disaster. Control and power are often motivation for sexual assault and in a disaster the assaulter may need to regain control, according to the report.
Researchers working for the Center for Global Development cited in an April 2020 working research paper that job loss and economic uncertainty and even specifically when an abuser is home from work and spending more time with family members as factors in increased violence against women and children.
Other research cites increases in domestic violence after hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Domestic violence situations aren’t only dangerous for potential victims but they are also potentially dangerous for law officers.
“They are very dangerous calls,” Burns said. “They are some of the most dangerous calls we have.”
With a domestic, there is a relationship and some level of caring between individuals which is different than a disorderly conduct call between two acquaintances or strangers, Burns said.
The situations “are tense and filled with emotion,” Burns said.
A domestic abuser may resist arrest and the victim could, in turn, decide to protect the abuser. Children can add more emotion and tension to the call.
“With any domestic we automatically (send) two officers,” Burns said. “…we know the inherent risk.”
Domestic disputes and domestic related incidents were the leading cause of law enforcement fatal calls from 2010-2016, according to a U.S. Department of Justice study, They accounted for 29% of all call fatalities.
Fifty-five law officers were killed by felonious acts in 2018 and 51 died in vehicle crashes, according the FBI.
In one case, the law officer was responding to a person with a mental illness, according to the FBI.
Burns said Sioux Falls Police have been responding to a wide range of mental health calls.
“Rarely are they threatening others,” Burns said.
When there is a threat, the person is threatening to harm themselves, Burns said.
Sioux Falls Police have critical response training as it applied to mental health calls. Officers will try an establish a rapport with the person to try and deescalate the situation, Burns said.
The Mobile Crisis Response Team will help if a person is a threat to himself, Burns said.
The mobile team has members with a high level of training. “It’s a wonderful tool,” Burns said.
Law officers are obligated to place someone in a hold up to 24 hours, or commitment, if they believe the person is a threat to themselves to protect them, Burns said. But the Mobile Crisis Team has been able to reduce the number of people who are committed for mental health reasons which is a better outcome for that person, Burns said.
Research related to violence also says factors that can influence violence during disasters can also cause mental health issues.
According to the World Health Organization, people with severe mental health disorders can be more vulnerable during emergencies or conflict. Also, many people will experience feelings of anxiety or hopelessness, for example, during an emergency.
Burns encourages Sioux Falls residents to use available resources for domestic violence and mental health and to take extra time to care for each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s pleased that so many in the community have cared for the police department by sharing cards, food and other gestures of kindness.
Internally, the police department has asked its trained peer support officers to “keep an eye” on their colleagues, Burns said. The peer support officers are most often used in crisis situations such a fatal crash or unusual death.
The city also provides employee assistance programs that officers are encouraged to use, Burns said.
Resources available to the public include: The Helpline Center at 1-800-273-8255, The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. For sexual and domestic violence: The Compass Center and its hotline at 1-877-IN-CRISIS. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also has a website with a list of resources for violence victims and others at https://www.hud.gov/states/south_dakota/homeless/hsghelp.