Story By: Alex Riggins
Sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors allege that on April 15, a man showed up with a gun at his ex-girlfriend’s Lemon Grove home, where he fatally shot her twin 15-year-old daughters and wounded her adult son.
The deadly shooting happened about a month into California’s coronavirus-related stay-home orders that closed schools and shuttered most non-essential businesses. And it came about two weeks after a man in Chula Vista allegedly killed his wifeduring a fight in front of the couple’s three children.
Local experts pointed to the two incidents as evidence of the increased dangers of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though attacks like the ones that killed Natalia Uriarte and Caira and Leah Christopher can happen any time — just last November, a man shot and killed his estranged wife, their four sons and himself in Paradise Hills — experts say the stresses of the pandemic and related health orders are taking their toll.
Yet despite the warnings of domestic violence experts and the stay-at-home mandate, the number of domestic violence calls for service and criminal cases is relatively unchanged, according to data from 11 police agencies throughout San Diego County.
The San Diego Union-Tribune in April began collecting weekly data for domestic-violence related cases and emergency calls for service from March 1 through the last full week in April.
Data show the 11 agencies received some 6,240 emergency calls classified as domestic violence during that time. The same period last year saw about 6,250 calls, a less than 1 percent drop.
The number of cases decreased slightly as well. In March and April of 2019, police officials were investigating 2,350 cases. During the same two-month period this year, the total was 2,285, a 3 percent decrease.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, whose office operates the San Diego Family Justice Center, said that while the number of domestic violence calls have been steady during the pandemic, the severity of the cases appears to be greater than before the stay-home orders took effect.
“This suggests that sheltering in place increases the risk to victims,” Elliott wrote in an email last month. “We’re also concerned that less severe incidents may not be getting reported.”
Elliott added that calls to the Family Justice Center, which serves victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking, have been more urgent.
“The current crisis has had a significant impact on survivors,” Elliott wrote. “Domestic violence has not stopped during the pandemic; instead, the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Domestic violence has always been a crisis … (and) affects people from all walks of life, economic levels, and cultures — this has not stopped with stay-at-home directives.”
Data collected by the Union-Tribune show the San Diego Police Department, the largest city law enforcement agency in the county, received both the highest number of domestic-violence related calls and investigated the largest number of cases county-wide this year.
From March through April, San Diego police responded to 2,550 calls for service, more than 40 percent of the total domestic-violence calls dispatched to agencies in San Diego County. The 2,550 calls represent a more than 5 percent decrease from last year, when the department received some 2,700 calls in the same time frame.
The department also took on 980 cases, more than any other agency in the county. Data show that’s a slight increase from last year, when police officials handled about 960 cases.
The county Sheriff’s Department responded to 2,310 calls for service between March 1 and April 25 — a 3 percent increase from the nearly 2,240 calls during the same time in 2019.
But data show the number of domestic violence cases investigated by sheriff’s deputies decreased by nearly 20 percent. There were more than 670 cases in March and April 2019, compared to just 560 cases during the same time frame this year.
National City Police Department saw about a 25 percent increase in the number of domestic violence cases. The department was investigating some 70 cases in early 2019, compared to 90 cases this year.
Data show National City cases peaked at 16 during the week after the stay-at-home mandate was implemented.
The Union-Tribune requested domestic violence related 911 call data and case totals from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Harbor Police, and police departments in San Diego, Coronado, Chula Vista, Escondido, El Cajon, La Mesa, National City, Oceanside and Carlsbad.
Countywide, agencies averaged about 780 domestic-violence related emergency calls each week. Data show the same weekly average in 2019.
The highest number of calls across all agencies occurred in the first full week following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home mandate, which took effect March 19. Data show weekly averages declined or stayed the same in all but two weeks since the executive order and subsequent economic shutdown.
Although the predicted uptick in domestic violence calls has not come about, Elliott said that does not mean instances of domestic violence abuse have remained steady.
“Just because someone is not reporting to law enforcement, does not mean domestic violence is not happening in the home,” she wrote.
Elliott believes the biggest effect of the pandemic has been its limiting of escape options.
“Often when someone leaves a violent relationship, they do so when the abuser is at work,” Elliott said in an email. “Now everyone is at home, and the opportunity to flee safely is limited. Also, we are hearing that people are fearful of being infected with COVID-19 if they have to flee to another location.”
Close quarters and limited ability to seek safety have often been cited as the main reasons experts predicted an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic.
But Jessica Yaffa, a relationship expert who until recently was president of the San Diego Domestic Violence Council, believes an even more significant factor is the feeling of a loss of control by harm-doers, her term for domestic abusers.
“Loss of job, reduction of work hours and pressures surrounding parenting” can all lead harm-doers to feel like they’re losing control, Yaffa said. She explained domestic violence is often the result of abusers exerting control, or precipitating acts of violence when they feel like they’re losing it.
“Because we’re living in a world now where everyone is living under these stay-home orders, there are more and more moments we feel like we’re losing control and there is this increased anxiety,” Yaffa said in an April phone interview. “When harm-doers feel like their control is being relinquished, there is the likelihood of that being externalized, of them being triggered and looking for an opportunity to lash out at their partner.”
Carlsbad City Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel is a policy analyst with Alliance for HOPE International and the program manager of the California Family Justice Center Network, working with all 24 Family Justice Centers throughout the state.
In an April phone interview, Bhat-Patel said many Family Justice Centers across the state were seeing an increase in the number of victims seeking help with protective orders. Casey Gwinn, the president of Alliance for HOPE International, wrote a blog post last month positing that nationwide murder-suicides linked to domestic violence soared at the end of March and beginning of April, during the early stages of most states’ stay-home orders.
Bhat-Patel said moving several steps in the domestic violence legal process online — including the seeking of temporary restraining orders, video conferencing with judges and electronically signing legal paperwork — are policy changes that could help victims during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.
The San Diego Superior Court reopened for most services May 26, and the changes Bhat-Patel advocates were not established. The legal process for domestic violence victims still requires in-person court vists, but Bhat-Patel wrote in an email last week that the city attorney and district attorney “are actively working with the court to explore (temporary restraining order) e-filing and remote hearings.”
“I do know some other counties outside of San Diego have started to implement e-signing of legal paperwork, which is exciting,” Bhat-Patel wrote.