Nome's Public Safety Building in April 2014, where the Nome Volunteer Ambulance Department is currently housed. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.

Local shelter-in-place mandates are meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, but they’ve also had some grim results. KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter reports that the Nome Police Department has seen a significant increase in domestic violence calls during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Social distancing isn’t keeping some people safe, it’s keeping them in more danger.”

– Nome Councilmember Jennifer Reader

Councilmember Jennifer Reader voiced that concern last Monday, April 13, after the Nome Common Council heard the police department’s report.

Nome Interim Police Chief Mike Heintzelman says calls about domestic violence are up by 33%, compared to April 2019.

“We used to get a lot of the calls late at night, and now we’re getting them across the board.”

The Chief suspects part of the issue is stress caused by people being out of work, compounded by home confinement and a lack of other outlets. He says “tempers flare.”

Many homes in the region were already overcrowded before the shelter-in-place mandates, which has been shown to cause increased tension and mental health issues.

Heintzelman told the Nome City Council that the state of Alaska’s social distancing mandates add different challenges. The police will often get calls resulting from arguments that don’t quite necessitate an arrest. In the best -case scenarios, Heintzelman says the police can act as mediators or coaches.

“If it’s possible, we’ll have one person spend time in one section of the house and the other in another side of the house if possible. In the old days we would just ask one party to leave… Go to a friend’s house, and spend the day! But we can’t do that now.”

But, staying home is a dangerous option for some.

Bertha Koweluk is the Director of The Bering Sea Women’s Group, the domestic violence shelter in Nome. Despite the police receiving an increased amount of calls for service, she says the local shelter isn’t getting more requests for help. Koweluk doesn’t know if that is a good or bad thing. But it could mean people sheltering at home with an abuser don’t feel safe enough to reach out.

The Nome Police aren’t the only ones seeing a surge in domestic violence calls. News outlets are reporting an increase across the country. The United Nations has warned against a global trend of violence towards women and girls during coronavirus lockdowns, urging all governments to address the issue as part of their coronavirus response.

Senator Lisa Murkowski has already called for increased resources from the federal government to benefit domestic violence groups to help tackle the extra challenges presented by COVID-19.

In Nome, the response to this issue has been relatively minor. The City is now putting out PSAs with local and state domestic violence resource numbers for individuals who need help to call.

For Chief Heintzelman, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought at least one silver lining. Officers that previously rotated for two-weeks on and two-weeks off shifts are now based in Nome all four weeks due to local quarantine restrictions. Heintzelman says officers who have permanent residences outside of Nome have offered to stay in the City while emergency travel ordinances are in place.

And they’ll help fill gaps that we have when we have currently only one officer on the schedule.”

The Bering Sea Women’s Group is still open and fully operational during the time of global coronavirus pandemic. Director Bertha Koweluk emphasizes that they are ready to help.

If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence, you can reach out to the Bering Sea Women’s Group at (800) 570-5444 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.

Image at top: Nome’s Public Safety Building in April 2014, where the Nome Police Department and Volunteer Ambulance Department are currently housed. Photo: Matthew F. Smith, KNOM file.