As cases of the coronavirus across Colorado begin to level off — a sign that hunkering down is making a difference — a sharp rise in domestic violence cases in El Paso County suggests that not everyone is safer at home.
In the last two weeks, there have been 50 more felony domestic violence cases compared with the same time last year, 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May said Tuesday at the county commissioners meeting.
“Unfortunately, it’s a perfect storm here,” May said of the stay-at-home order, which went into effect March 26.
“These stay-at-home orders are isolating the victims of domestic violence and they are isolating for long periods of time, preventing escape,” he said.
“We are seeing an increase in very violent and long-term and protracted domestic violence.”
In the first few weeks after the shutdown, the DA’s Office saw a drop in misdemeanor domestic violence and sexual assault cases, May said.
“Now we are seeing an increase in the extremely violent episodes where people are isolated at home,” he said. “They are quite frankly ... being tortured because they are being held there hostage for hours and days at a time and domestic violence is occurring.”
The latest example was Sunday, when police shot a 28-year-old man who allegedly pointed a rifle at four officers during a domestic disturbance in southeast Colorado Springs.
When the officers arrived at home, officers tried to talk to Virgill Thorpe and deescalate the situation, but he ran back inside and came out with a rifle, authorities said.
After he pointed the gun toward the four officers, they fired, striking him at least once, authorities said. The officers and female caller were not injured. Thorpe later died at a hospital.
Anne Markley, interim CEO of TESSA, a nonprofit that serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence in El Paso and Teller counties, echoed his concerns.
“The calls that we are receiving are more severe in nature than what we are used to seeing.”
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t far from what Markley and experts across Colorado were expecting.
“The isolation that they are experiencing, that is a tactic that is often used by abusers, and so it is being held on them even further. All of us are in a stressful situation, but when domestic violence is underlying, they are seeing greater repercussions from that,” Markley said.
Since closing its office to protect the community and staff from being exposed, TESSA has installed additional phone lines for those who want to speak to domestic violence advocates between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“The problem that we are concerned with is because of the isolation and people being left at home is that people aren’t having the ability to reach out because they are there with their abuser,” Markley said.
If it’s not safe for someone to pick up the phone to call for help, TESSA has installed an online chat on its website for adults and youths ages 15-18 to connect with an advocate.
To maintain safe social distancing, half of the residents at the nonprofit’s SafeHouse have been relocated to alternate locations, a move made possible in part by Gov. Jared Polis’ COVID Relief Fund and a grant from Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
Markley said in the past few weeks, she has seen several abusers receive low bonds or personal recognizance bonds, allowing them to return to their victim in less than 24 hours.
At Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting, May cited a recent example of a person accused of domestic violence receiving $6,000 bond. Meanwhile, for some serious felonies, like attempted murder, a judge could place a $50,000 bond, he said.
Starting Monday, the DA’s Office has assigned three deputy district attorneys to be on call, 24 hours a day. The attorneys will urge judges to set higher bonds for very violent cases the day after they are arrested.
The new system allows officers and detectives to quickly communicate domestic violence arrests to the DA’s Office and alert them of a potentially deadly situation, said Sgt. Jason Newton, a spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department.
“It’s very frustrating when you make a felony arrest on domestic violence and less than 24 hours, that person is back on the streets and has access to their victim again. That’s where it becomes very scary for us and it can become deadly for the victims.”
Newton said officers have seen domestic violence cases escalate under the stay-at-home order.
“Sometimes we would see these cases and they would be long and drawn-out, where we would go out to a house maybe four or five times. Now, they have been isolated and it blows up to a level where it becomes extremely violent or even deadly,” he said.
“People aren’t able to call in or they are only being called in when something really bad happens, like when a neighbor hears it or a victim gets to the point where they feel like their life is going to be taken. ... It is already a heated scene and then we’re coming in.”
Markley stressed the stay-at-home order does not apply to individuals who are experiencing domestic violence.
“If you are in a situation of domestic violence, if you are able to leave that situation, move out the residence or get out of an unsafe situation, the stay-at-home order does not mean you have to stay at home.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, call TESSA’s 24-hour Safeline at 719-633-3819 or call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Additional resources, including bilingual services, can also be found at violencefreecolorado.org.