Lindsey Rose Bullinger, Jillian B. Carr, and Analisa Packham, “Effects of Stay-at-Home Orders on Domestic Violence,” American Journal of Health Economics, 2021
Image: The roof of a police car is visible at the bottom of the image, a blue light is illuminated on top. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

The COVID-19 lockdowns brought much of society to a screeching halt – including many types of crime. Yet one crime type that is especially difficult to track may have risen – domestic violence.  Lindsey Bullinger, Jillian Carr, and Analisa Packham looked closely into these crime numbers and discovered some unexpected findings.

Using cell-phone activity and public transportation data in Chicago during the March 2020 lockdown, the researchers examined the impact of official stay at home orders on domestic violence reports, arrests, and 911 calls. They found that reports and arrests for domestic violence decreased during the lockdown, but when they looked “upstream” at 911 calls, they found a 7.4% increase in police calls for domestic violence. 

To explain the apparent increase in police calls for domestic violence but decline in reports and arrests, the researchers suggested three possible explanations.  

  1. Many people were deemed “nonessential” and ordered to remain home, leading more neighbors to “self-police” domestic conflicts, potentially increasing 911 calls.  However, when police arrived, victims of domestic violence may have been less likely to officially report the crime because they feared further isolation during this unpredictable time – leading to fewer reports. 
  2. Due to concerns about COVID-19 within jails and prisons, police and courts may have intentionally limited arrests and prosecutions. 
  3. The shutdown of workplaces, schools, child care centers, domestic violence shelters, and other supports during the lockdown created additional stress on the community.  From these closings, pressures such as unemployment, increased caregiver demands, and isolation increased the chance of conflict and domestic violence within homes. 

The lockdowns in cities and communities across the U.S. clearly saved many from COVID-19 and reduced many types of crime.  But domestic violence is a distinctive category of crime, with social causes that are bound up with family relationships.  Policies providing better social and material support for families during future lockdowns might help ease the strains that led to domestic violence in the COVID-19 era.