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Law enforcement, domestic violence victims face new challenges, barriers amid pandemic

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WILLMAR — As residents adjust to Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, law enforcement has seen an uptick in domestic and mental health calls, which tend to be the most unpredictable and dangerous for officers, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt.

The increase in certain types of calls, including speeding and reckless driving, has put officers in new and unique situations, forcing the department to adjust procedures, schedules and equipment in order to protect staff so that they can continue to provide service to the community.

“We’ve had suspects that have faked COVID-19 symptoms in an attempt to avoid arrest and leave staff wondering if they and their families are at risk due to an exposure,” Felt wrote via email.

Despite these risks, the department has been working to interpret the governor’s stay-at-home order in order to educate and provide guidance and compliance through cooperation with the community.

The stay-at-home order, which was recently extended to May 4 , directs Minnesotans to stay home except for when obtaining essential services and to limit traveling and social gatherings.


“We’re fortunate that a vast majority in our community have voluntarily complied with the order, including the closure of non-essential businesses and social distancing,” Felt wrote. “We’ve spent considerable time, effort and resources to gain the trust in our community and will continue to hold to those values.”

Felt said the department senses a trend of people becoming more complacent, however, due to restlessness and anxiousness.

“We still work to gain compliance through education and cooperation, but the order does give legal authority to cite or even arrest if necessary for violations,” Felt wrote. “We hope that this will never become necessary.”

Felt also said his department works closely with social service agencies including Safe Avenues, which provides advocacy services and emergency shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence primarily in Willmar and a surrounding eight-county area.

“We realize that some members of the community are facing hardships that were previously non-existent or have been amplified with the stay-at-home order,” Felt wrote. “This could include domestic abuse, mental health issues, hunger or other basic needs.”

Along with the increase in domestic calls to local law enforcement, Safe Avenues has seen about a 30% increase in calls since the stay-at-home order was enacted, according to Safe Avenues Executive Director Jen Johnson.

Johnson said that often officers will refer victims to them or drop them off at the shelter.

Safe Avenues also sits on multidisciplinary and child protection teams in each one of their counties, according to Johnson.


Johnson said the increase in calls has mostly been regarding sexual violence, as opposed to domestic violence, but that the two are interconnected.

“They overlap quite a bit,” Johnson said. “So it’s not to say that (a sexual violence call) doesn’t mean that there’s not domestic violence involved in a situation, because it could be as well. Each situation is different.”

Johnson said that sexual violence is usually a crime of opportunity for people who have access to the victim.

The increased amount of time that people are staying home due to the pandemic has given abusers that exact opportunity.

“Stranger rape is not as common as people think it is,” Johnson said. “So it's not surprising to us that work in this field that there would be an increase in sexual assault calls.”

Safe Avenues emergency shelter in Willmar is open and has room for anyone that wants to flee domestic violence, according to Johnson.

Johnson said the normal barriers to leaving — lack of transportation, concerns about child care and the funds to start over — are compounded by the fact someone’s abuser is still in their house and they are with them all the time.

“They can't just sneak out. It's easier for them to leave if they're not constantly with that person,” Johnson said. “So I think that we're ready and prepared and waiting for the increase in domestic violence calls. I do think that it'll probably happen once the stay-at-home order is over.”


Safe Avenues operates offices in eight counties — Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine, McLeod and Lac qui Parle — that are open but advocates may be working remotely due to the pandemic.

People seeking help can call 1-800-792-4210 or 320-235-0962 and can talk to either someone at the Willmar shelter or an advocate specific to their county.

Johnson said that whenever victims are ready to call, they can and that Safe Avenues services are confidential and free.

“Domestic violence victims know what's best for them,” Johnson said. “That's a fundamental part of advocacy, we empower them to make decisions and then support their decisions.”

When people leave an abusive situation, their danger level increases by 70%, according to Johnson.

“So we are not going to tell somebody 'you have to do this' or 'you should do this,'” Johnson said. “We're gonna help them by giving them options and then allowing them to make their decisions based on what they think is best for them and will help them safely plan, regardless of what their choice is.”

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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