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2020 Spike in Domestic Violence Continued into 2021

By Austin Dillon

Little over a year ago, Pegasus Institute reported a startling spike in domestic violence in Louisville following Kentucky’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order. The report, however, only examined available data from the first four months of 2020. Now that full yearly data is available from LMPD, it is clear that the domestic violence surge became even more grim throughout the rest of the year and has continued well into 2021.

A recent study from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (CCJ) notes that domestic violence incidents increased 8.1% nationwide after jurisdictions imposed pandemic-related lockdown orders. In Louisville, however, incidents increased over 13% from 2019 and over 11% from the 2016-2019 average.

The American Journal of Emergency Medicine explained how some of the risk factors for domestic violence have been exacerbated during pandemic lockdowns:

“Although these measures can be effective to control the spread of disease, they have a

profound impact on society leading to social, financial and psychological repercussions.

Isolation may expose or worsen vulnerabilities due to a lack of established social support systems. The temporary shutdown of non-essential businesses has led to unemployed and economic strain. Quarantine conditions are associated with alcohol abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Stay-at-home orders may cause a catastrophic milieu for individuals whose lives are plagued by domestic violence (DV).”

The CCJ study notes that the specific factors driving the national spike remain unclear, but speculates that “[d]ata showing increased reporting to the police, along with emergency rooms and other healthcare settings, may reflect more victimizations, as well as an increase in the number of neighbors who overhear domestic disturbances and phone for help.” It also leaves open the possibility “that the rise in reported violence might also reflect an increase in the proportion of victims who decide to seek criminal justice interventions.”

The chart below displays monthly totals of domestic violence reports for domestic violence incidents since 2019, with indicators marking the beginning and end of Kentucky’s COVID-19 restrictions. The data only represent unique incident records, as some incident numbers for domestic violence appear more than once in the LMPD reporting system.

The next chart displays a comparison of the 2019, 2020, and 2021 monthly totals with the average monthly totals from 2016-2019.

The original Pegasus analysis only examined data through April 2020. While the 2020 totals began to eclipse the 2019 totals in just March, the most disturbing increases began in May and ballooned throughout the summer, with monthly totals reaching numbers far above any in the past five years. Though domestic violence incidents slightly dipped at the end of the summer, monthly totals for the rest of the year remained well above other those of recent years.

Louisville experienced a slightly above average number of domestic violence incidents in March 2020, falling below average in April and then careening to recently unprecedented levels in May and throughout the rest of the year.

2021 picked up where 2020 left off, taking monthly domestic violence totals to new record-breaking highs, with April and May each exceeding 600 total monthly incidents. 2021 monthly totals remained well above the previous years’ totals from January until May, also far outpacing monthly averages for 2016-2019.

There is, however, some hope that domestic violence incidents may be returning to pre-2020 levels. In June 2021, LMPD reported lower domestic violence incidents in 2021 than at the same date in 2020, and the June 2021 totals were the lowest for June in the past six years. This preliminary data from 2021 seems to indicate that domestic violence incidents may be descending from such tragically historic heights.

While it is difficult to speculate exactly why domestic violence incidents remained so dramatically high from the summer of 2020 until recently in 2021, the nature of the data from LMPD crime reports can be instructive in determining possible causes. During the initial months of lockdown, many domestic violence organizations reported shorter, more frantic calls; others reported “eerily silent” lines due to victims lacking privacy to call. Other providers reported less frequent calls, but more violent incidents from the calls received. Because the LMPD data represents the number of incidents reported to LMPD, it is possible that a continued loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, paired with a return to in-person work, gave victims more opportunities to report domestic violence incidents while safely away from their abusers.

June 2021’s significant drop in domestic violence incidents came in the same month that Kentucky’s governor fully lifted Kentucky’s COVID-19 restrictions. Hopefully, this drop continues throughout the final half of 2021 as victims continue to have more opportunities available outside the home to report incidents and to seek refuge.

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