A room in the shelter operated by the El Paso Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. (Photo courtesy of CASFV)

Family violence cases and sexual assaults have reached their highest levels since at least 2018, according to nearly four years of data from the El Paso Police Department. So far, 2021 has topped the numbers seen during the same period in 2020.

The pandemic’s effect on calls to El Paso police

In April 2020, the month after the start of the pandemic and when many localities were on lockdown, dispatch calls to El Paso police reached a four-year low. That trend continued into the summer, with calls for EPPD service not rising to typical levels until July.

As El Paso Matters has previously reported, EPPD saw a 6% drop in family violence reports between March 16 and April 4, 2020. Throughout Texas, however, reports of domestic violence to law enforcement rose by 16% during the first month of stay-at-home orders, according to a report by the Texas Council on Family Violence. In roughly the same period, calls to El Paso’s Center Against Sexual and Family Violence hotline rose by 34%.

At the time, experts worried that fear of viral exposure made many victims unsure where to turn for help.

Sexual assault and family violence in El Paso

In the early months of the pandemic, law enforcement agencies all over the world reported an upswing in cases of domestic abuse. Experts largely attributed the rise to the stressors of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders that left many stuck at home with their abusers.

El Paso was no different. By the end of 2020, the total number of family violence cases for the year had climbed slightly above cases in 2019.

But according to EPPD data for Jan 1, 2018, through Oct. 31, 2021, obtained through an open records request, this year is on track to surpass 2020.

El Paso Matters compared family violence cases and sexual assaults handled by EPPD for 2018 to 2021, focusing on the months of January through October, the most recent month that 2021 data is available. So far, 2021’s family violence cases are higher than the first 10 months of the three previous years.

El Paso’s 3,636 cases of family violence so far in 2021 rose by 13% compared to the same time period in 2019, the second-highest total.

The city’s 516 sexual assault victims marked about a 3% rise above the number of victims in 2018, the second-highest year.

In 2021, EPPD received reports of sexual offenses against 264 children under the age of 16, the highest since 2019.

The lethality of family violence incidents has also increased in El Paso. With 2021 not yet over, EPPD has recorded nine domestic-violence related homicides this year, more than the annual total for each of the last three years.

In 2021, EPPD also carried out more arrests for violations of protective orders than all previous years. Protective orders can involve criminal family violence, sexual abuse, stalking and trafficking allegations. Magistrate judges issue protective orders if they believe there is an immediate danger of further violence. The following chart breaks down arrests by gender.  

The increase in family violence and sexual assault cases comes as the United States records an overall rise in violent crimes, though not property crimes. The rise is especially acute for homicides, which in 2020 reached their highest level since 1995. Nearly eight in 10 of these deaths involved firearms, according to the FBI.

The reasons for this rise are up for debate and likely involve a mix of factors.

Many experts point to social unrest following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. There are also anecdotal accounts that many police departments — which, contrary to popular perception, have for the most part not experienced budget cuts or officer reductions — attempted to minimize public contact during the pandemic.

Cover photo: A room in the shelter operated by the El Paso Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. (Photo courtesy of CASFV)

Victoria Rossi is a women and gender issues reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal...