One of the simplest and most effective ways for Cortland police officers to defuse a domestic dispute was to have one of the parties go for a walk or stay at a friend’s house for a night, Lt. Michael Strangeway said.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed that.
“We’ve kind of lost our ability to do that,” he said. “Where do we go?”
Police in the greater Cortland area have seen an increase in domestic disputes since the virus began to take hold of the state in early March. It mirrors a 30% so far this month in domestic violence incidents statewide, compared with April 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday. And that’s up from a 15% increase in March, year over year, and and 18% increase between February and last month.
From March 7 to April 20, the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office responded to 67 domestic incidents, Sheriff Mark Helms said, up from 51 in the same period last year.
Most of the increases have been order of protection violations and criminal contempt, Helms said.
He said he wasn’t sure what was causing the increase — many factors besides the pandemic pushing people to stay home may play a part — speculating that new bail reform laws were having people arraigned on charges from domestic disputes but then released afterward, further causing issues.
“New Yorkers are living through an unimaginably stressful period and we’re seeing signs that domestic violence is on the rise as victims are stuck at home with their abusers and unable to access the help they need,” Cuomo said. The state has activated a hot line, via text at 844-997-2121 or at www.opdv.ny.gov to give victims access to professional help 24 hours a day.
Officers are still responding to all the calls, he said, but now bring more protection — masks and gloves.
“We’re not just going to go because no one is talking to us,” he said.
Homer Police Chief Robert Pitman has also seen more domestic incidents.
In the past, his office might only get one or two domestic incidents calls a month. Recently, it’s been closer to one to two a week, most of them verbal.
“It can be as meaningless as over groceries or moving furniture, but to them it could be a trigger,” Pitman said.
What disputes have been physical have mostly involved pushing and shoving with no major bouts of violence, he said.
Pitman thinks the increase is due to a combination of the weather and coronavirus-inspired limits preventing people from doing much outside of their homes in regard to entertainment.
“We’re just getting over winter,” he said. “We’ve been cooped up for winter. The weather is getting nicer and they want to get out and do things and they can’t.”
Tension from sudden unemployment or being in the same place with the same people more may also be contributing factors, he said.
For those involved in domestic disputes that aren’t in immediate danger, Linda Glover, the program director for Aid to Victims of Violence, said that victims can use journaling their experiences or hobbies such as reading or sewing to help cope with the incidents.
Additionally, people can speak to someone from Aid to Victims of Violence, which provides support to victims of sexual abuse and other crimes, she said.
Glover also offered steps that may help prevent escalation of a domestic dispute, including walking away from an argument or agreeing with the other person even if you don’t, she said.
In more serious situations in which a child might be in the home, Glover recommended having a codeword that the child knows and can leave and get help.
For victims who are in immediate danger, Aid to Victims of Violence can provide free housing for 90 days to help the victim get away from their abuser and work to develop a plan for the future.
The program’s staff can also call the police if the victim cannot. Conversely, police can provide the program’s phone number to people who need it.
“At least it’s putting an idea into the victim’s head that” they can get help, she said.