Domestic violence crimes spike during COVID-19 crisis
With many people staying home to avoid catching the COVID-19 virus, calls for service due to domestic violence have risen significantly. Nome Interim Chief of Police Mike Heintzelman reports his officers are finding their work more complicated. Initially, calls reporting domestic violence to the Nome Police Department increased by 25 percent. This last week, it rose significantly from that level. Chief Heintzelman reports the department’s call volume last week was over 500, about 120 percent higher than before the COVID-19 virus measures went into effect.
“We’re really asking a lot of the officers to go forth and take this many calls,” said Heintzelman. For the first 30 days of anti-COVID-19 measures, the department was fortunate to have the rotational officers who were scheduled to fly out remain in Nome, he said. Normally they work two weeks on and two off. One of the rotating officers flew out last Friday, another is scheduled to leave in two weeks. The department has eight officers and two are at currently at the police academy.
“The problem is bringing them back,” said Heintzelman. “Do we have a quick test that is accurate and is going to put them right back in the field?” Or do they have to come back and quarantine? That’s the big question and it is yet to be answered.
Police officers have to take a lot of precautions. They are exposed to a lot of different people every day. The department is using a cleansing substance to disinfect patrol cars after a transport. The officers have personal protection equipment but have to respond to situations that put them in harms way. Last week, on April 14, officers responded to a call at the Rec Center that 36-year-old Nome resident Dawn Oozevaseuk was coughing onto people, telling them she’d given them the coronavirus. She was arrested on charges of terroristic threatening in the second degree and booked at AMCC. The arrest came just hours after it was made public that a Nome patient had tested positive for COVID-19. Oozevaseuk was held without bail and a NPD press release said, “The Nome police department is taking the pandemic very serious and has a zero tolerance to violations of this nature.”
While the department has enough PPE supplies at this time, they could use more. “We could always use more supplies,” said the interim chief. “Right now the jail is asking that anybody we drop off have a mask put on them before they take them. Of course we’re using the masks as quickly as we get them. And there isn’t an overabundance. I’d like to see the officers have masks that are a little more comfortable. Because they’ve got to wear them longer. But we could use them.”
Most of the calls to the police department lead the officers to known offenders. “It is more likely that we’ve encountered them before than brand new people,” said Chief Heintzelman. The officers try to explain the consequences of domestic assault even though most of the suspects are already familiar with the system. “It takes some real creativity on the part of the officer, especially if they’re intoxicated. It’s almost impossible to reason with somebody if they are extremely intoxicated.”
A standard tactic to diffuse domestic violence issues that involve alcohol was to separate the parties, but in times of COVID-19, this is no longer possible. “One of the things we used to do when we’d respond is separate parties if there was a domestic,” said Heintzelman. “Of course now I can’t do that. I can’t send him over to his buddy’s house. It’s kind of a difficult time to separate both parties and deal with it that way. It’s a difficult time to resolves issues.” In most cases, alcohol adds fuel to the fire.
In other interactions, officers must maintain a safe distance from all people they interact with so they can’t get up close and personal like they normally would. “We’re going into an environment where people do not have the personal protection on,” said Heintzleman. “The personal protective equipment is kind of to protect the other fella from you. Not you from the other fella. Spacing them out like that some people take offense if you’re not close to them. Some people want to shake your hand. I had a person put his hand out the other day and I shook it, then I had to go wash my hands with alcohol, but I don’t let him see that,” Heintzelman said.
Those arrested are taken to the ER room at the hospital only if the individual needs to be medically cleared for jail. If that is not the case they go to the jail. AMCC has requested that arriving prisoners wear a face mask. They come out to the officer’s car and take the individual’s temperature to as best they can make sure he or she is not contagious.