By SARAH NELSON, The Gainesville Sun via ASSOCIATED PRESS
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — As elected leaders issue orders for residents to stay inside, data from local law enforcement shows a simultaneous uptick in domestic violence.
To date, the Gainesville Police Department has reported 21 more domestic violence/battery cases than it saw at the same time last year, with 211 cases compared with 190 in 2019.
And the overwhelming majority of those extra cases have come in the past two weeks, when orders to quarantine and self-isolate began to create a bad scenario for those whose homes are the most unsafe place to be.
Police department officials say it’s still speculative to link the stay-at-home orders to the higher reports of domestic violence and battery, but directors at a local shelter say they’re bracing for an influx.
“We are certainly seeing increased calls, and yes, these kinds of crises tend to exacerbate bad situations,” said Theresa Beachy, executive director of Gainesville’s Peaceful Paths shelter. “We are seeing more calls to the legal team and requests for injunction support, as well as helpline calls. This will only go up as the quarantine lingers.”
Two weeks ago, leaders from the city of Gainesville and Alachua County declared a state of emergency for city and county residents. Last week, the chairman of the county commission ordered a countywide stay-at-home order, and closed nonessential businesses.
GPD officials say domestic violence arrests were looking to be on par with last year’s numbers, but as restrictions on daily life rolled out over a two-week period, the cases increased.
Eighteen of the 21 cases that surpassed last year’s total to date took place from March 16-30.
“I do not have enough information to attribute the stay-at-home order as the causation but we believe, based on when domestics seem to rise around holidays and the like, it is a contributing factor,” said GPD Chief Inspector Jorge Campos.
Last year, police here handled 28 domestic violence cases during the two-week time span. The number rose to 46 this year.
Case numbers from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office during the same period show an uptick, though a much smaller one.
Since March 15, the Sheriff’s Office has reported only two more cases of domestic battery compared with the first half of the month, but 12 more domestic disturbances.
Sgt. Frank Kinsey said the numbers are nominal, but something the agency will “absolutely” keep its eyes on.
“This is just a short snapshot,” he said. “It may take some time to see the numbers come out in the wash.”
Local law enforcement has attempted to ease up on arrests for nonviolent cases to help slow the number of people headed to the county jail and avoid a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates.
But per state law, deputies and officers are required to arrest those found to have committed domestic violence, battery and stalking.
“I think part of trying to withhold arrests is intended to free up space,” said Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone. “But be aware there are going to be people who will be arrested. If somebody commits murder, they’re going to jail.”
Cervone has previously said he will not advocate for the wholesale release of inmates from the jail as a response to the pandemic, despite some pushing for the release of inmates jailed for lower-level crimes, as some counties around the state have done.
He pointed to a case he said occurred last week: when a defense lawyer asked for the release of someone facing two charges of domestic battery who had a history of not complying with conditions of his release.
“There was no way I was going to agree to that,” Cervone said. “There are some cases that for public safety interests, simply cannot be released.”
Beachy said the shelter needs donations, most especially of paper goods and pantry items.
For those who need help or have questions about domestic violence, Peaceful Paths’ 24-hour, local hotline number is 377-8255.
The emergency shelter, which can hold 42 people at a time, will remain open for Alachua, Bradford and Union county residents. Quarantine areas are also available. Out-of-county residents will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Everyone arriving at the shelter will be screened through a CDC questionnaire provided by the health department. Those with positive answers will be referred to the helpline for crisis intervention, and to the health department to be tested.