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Domestic Violence Arrests Fall During COVID-Lockdown, while 911 Calls for Police Surged


A Purdue University faculty expert on crime is painting a more comprehensive picture of the effects of lockdown policies on domestic violence. The picture is a discouraging one.

While COVID-19 pandemic-related stay-at-home, or SAH, orders undoubtedly saved many lives, new research highlights the effects of changes to expected police procedures, and a need to better protect the vulnerable.

During a stay-at-home order, one might expect reported domestic crimes and arrests to increase. In at least one major American city, they in fact fell, even as there was a large increase in 911 calls.

Krannert School of Management Assistant Professor of Economics Dr. Jillian Carr and coauthors build on recent evidence of the effects of SAH orders on domestic violence by focusing on one city – Chicago – and extending their analysis beyond 911 calls to estimate effects on reported crimes and arrests.

Carr; Lindsey Rose Bullinger of the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Analisa Packham of Vanderbilt University find that in March and April 2020, domestic-related 911 calls for police in Chicago surged, but the number of officially reported domestic crimes and arrests fell by 6.8% and 26.4%, respectively.

This is partially because, as estimated by the authors, over 600 cases of domestic violence went underreported. This change in reporting behavior may be attributed to the fact that the prevalence of COVID-19 in Chicago changed law enforcement procedures and resident behaviors.

“We know that officers were told to try to limit their contact with residents in non-emergency situations in the early days of the pandemic in order to limit their own exposure to the virus,” Carr said. “This may have led to some less serious domestic disturbances resulting in a visit from officers, but not an official report.

“It also makes sense that victims have an incentive to prevent their partner from being arrested, given that Cook County Jail experienced an outbreak in late March -- especially if they expected them to be released in a few days.”

The new study, “COVID-19 and Crime: Effects of Stay-at-Home Orders on Domestic Violence,” is forthcoming in the American Journal of Health Economics. The paper focuses on a 5-week period following the Illinois governor’s implementation of a COVID-19 pandemic-related SAH order on March 21, 2020.

The SAH order lead to an increased time spent at home, and to a 7.4 percent increase in domestic-violence related 911 calls for police service – this equates to 1,202 additional domestic violence calls than would have been expected over the 5-week window.

Total reported crimes and arrests dropped by nearly 30 percent during the SAH period in the study. However, declines for domestic violence crimes are much smaller than both the decline in overall crimes and non-violent crime rates.

Using administrative data from the city of Chicago on calls for police service and crime reports allowed the researchers to disentangle some of the reasons that domestic violence is going undetected to create a more accurate measure of underlying violence and to suggest policy prescriptions to protect vulnerable groups.

In particular, the findings offer evidence on the health tradeoffs of SAH policies and the direct costs that they impose on domestic abuse victims. These results also highlight the potential need to protect domestic violence victims in the circumstance of future outbreaks and suggest that there is a need to strengthen the role that healthcare and law enforcement professionals play in detecting abuse, given that SAH orders have changed and disrupted the traditional abuse-detection process.

“This is really a question of tradeoffs and understanding how we could have done more for domestic abuse victims,” Carr said. “For example, many shelters had to operate at limited capacity due to the virus at a time when the demand for their services increased. Economic issues likely made it even harder for victims to get away from abusers. Women have lost jobs at a disproportionately high rate during the pandemic, and they also make up the vast majority of domestic abuse victims.

“There is a potential benefit of increased unemployment benefits or other financial aid to abuse victims, as it may allow them to leave their abusers. This should be a part of the national conversation about pandemic aid.”

Finally, given the evidence on the large external costs of intimate partner violence on the health and well-being of children, addressing the increase in calls reporting intimate partner abuse in policymaking is relevant for improving total social welfare.