Police work to handle rise in domestic violence calls during pandemic



Domestic violence calls make up the majority of calls for help to 911 in north Fulton cities. Experts at organizations that assist victims and train law enforcement in responding to calls say police departments that receive regular training and have dedicated specialists can help address the need.

The pandemic, which has thrown families together at home for long periods, has created a new emphasis on the need to manage domestic calls differently from other emergencies. Victim advocates respond to domestic calls for some police departments: Sandy Springs Police is one of the few local law enforcement agencies in the Atlanta metro area that has a victim advocate within the department.

Two north Fulton cities reported a substantial increase in domestic violence calls from January to the end of May, when compared to a year earlier: Sandy Springs police reported a 26% increase in calls during that period and Johns Creek had a 43% increase.

“It’s definitely a concern right now with some people not being in a great situation with the pandemic,” Caitlin Barsin, victim advocate for the Sandy Springs Police Department, said.

Johns Creek police spokesman Capt. Todd Hood said it’s not easy to pinpoint the reason for an increase in domestic calls.

Gov. Brian Kemp has relaxed the state's shelter-in-place orders, but with the number of coronavirus cases in Georgia still rising, many people have continued to stay home. The forced togetherness can lead to a pressure-cooker environment that worsens family disputes.

Consistent training in how to talk to families benefits victims but also helps officers deal with sometimes delicate situations, victim advocates say.

Victims often feel embarrassed or ashamed of what took place before they called 911 and become reluctant to talk when police arrive, added Cynthia Pearson, a secretary with the Fulton County Family Violence Task Force (FVTF).

A raspy voice could indicate a victim was choked. A blood vessel that has popped in the eye might be a sign of a punch in the face. And if a victim changed her clothes before police get to the house, it could mean she experienced some strangulation causing her body to involuntarily urinate, according to police engagement advocate Amber Goins who works with for the Partnership Against Domestic Violence (PADV).

“The idea of training is to get officers to investigate in a way that if the (victim) doesn’t want to participate, it’s okay because there is enough evidence,” Goins said.

Sandy Springs’ victim advocate Barsin is also a licensed clinical social worker and works with patrol officers and detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division to be sure domestic victims are handled differently from victims of other crimes and understand what resources are available to them.

Unlike when law enforcement handles domestic violence calls, when an advocate responds, those who repeatedly call for help can develop trust in an advocate, she said.

Johns Creek doesn’t have a dedicated victim advocate but the police department has referred people who need additional help to the Victims Assistance program in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, Hood said.

Many Johns Creek police officers have trained in a 40-hour class, Law Enforcement Response to Domestic Violence, taught by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, Hood said. Some officers have received more specialized training from other agencies including the Fulton County Solicitor General’s office on crisis intervention and mental health awareness which helps them respond to domestic calls.

Before the pandemic, Roswell planned to hire a victim advocate for the police department but that’s now on hold due to a tighter budget, Thompson, said. Similar to Johns Creek, Roswell relies on Fulton County’s resources when providing help and information to domestic violence victims.

Roswell officers respond to more domestic disputes or domestic violence reports and traffic accidents than any other type of 911 call, according to Police Officer Sean Thompson. That’s not surprising because Roswell is primarily a residential city. Even so, the city did not see a percentage increase in the number of calls this year. Thompson said, the police department works to ensure their officers get regular training to be ready to respond.

Pearson said domestic violence training in police departments can sometimes fall down the list of priorities.

“I’ve been doing this work for 12 years,” Pearson said. “Police know when they get a domestic call, they have to be ready because it can result in a hostage situation or a shooting. There is so much information to know in handling these situations but training is not always consistent.”