Katie Licari | Black Voice News

For Sgt. Celeste Neiman, “The response starts with an often-frantic call to dispatch with a victim crying, asking for help.” 

Frequently, the aggressor has hit, strangled, or held the victim against their will. Neiman, who has been with the Riverside Police Department for 29 years, became the domestic violence unit’s sergeant two years ago. 

Because “they can be deadly for officers and the victim,” explained Neiman, DV (domestic violence)  calls can be the most difficult to handle.  

A police officer’s interaction with a domestic violence survivor often begins when a frantic victim calls 911. (source: wikipedia.com)

COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, crucial to curtail the spread of the virus, led to a global spike in domestic violence reports. The impact was felt locally, too. Last year, nearly 15,000 women in Riverside and San Bernardino counties reported domestic violence to area police and sheriff’s departments.

Neiman said the lockdown changed her job — and the jobs of her fellow officers in the DV unit — in two ways. 

“The pandemic forced victims into ‘survival mode’ by creating home environments where they were isolated from family and friends, and around their abusers more frequently,” explained Neiman. “We also saw an increase in the level of violence that law enforcement was called out to.”

Strangulations and Suffocations

Domestic violence-related calls increased across the inland region last year, according to data from the California Department of Justice, more so in some areas than others. 

Calls increased 8.7% in San Bernardino County and although there was an overall decrease in domestic violence calls in Riverside County, certain cities, including Calimesa and Indian Wells saw double-digit increases in calls.

Strangulation/suffocation calls increased in both counties. This is a particularly lethal form of domestic violence as strangulation/suffocation victims are seven times more likely to later be murdered by their abuser. 

An Undercount of Victims

The state’s data of domestic violence victims is likely an undercount compared to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

According to the CDC, one in four women and one in 10 men experience severe intimate partner violence within their lifetimes. Based on recent census demographic data, this could mean the total number of DV victims in the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino might be as high as 70,000 women and 30,000 men compared to the 7,189 domestic violence calls police responded to in the cities last year. 

A domestic abuse survivor, pictured at a candlelight vigil held by Option House on Oct. 8, 2021. The San Bernardino event honored victims and survivors of domestic violence. (Courtesy Jeremiah Hill, Black Voice News)

Seeking Shelter from the Storm

Some DV victims and survivors seek out local shelters like San Bernardino’s Option House. 

Anie, a domestic violence survivor, left a “bad” relationship in Hemet with her 6-year-old daughter about five years ago. 

Anie now works at Option House as a child care advocate. “Helping [women] get up on their feet and get out of situations and have a better life” for themselves and their children '' is important to Anie, she said.

Option House is unique in that it is one of the only coed shelters in the U.S, which means it provides services for men, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals fleeing domestic violence. 

A Cultural Divide

For cultural reasons, men, and LGBTQ+ victims of domestic violence are less likely to report and seek services. 

Denise Hines, who studies domestic violence among men and in the LGBTQ+ community, said these groups -- particularly male victims -- are overlooked because society first became aware of intimate partner violence (IPV) as a crime men committed against women.

“We really need a broader, more inclusive understanding that includes men as victims of women, and that also includes people who are involved in LGBTQ+ relationships, so that we can help all people who are victims of domestic violence,” said Hines. 

While the power dynamics at the root of abusive relationships are similar across heterosexual relationships and LGBTQ+ relationships, there are specific ways abuse manifests in each community. 

Hines pointed to an example of an LGBTQ+ abuser withholding hormonal medication from their transitioning partner. In addition, heterosexual males are less likely to die in a domestic violence incident, but they do face more obstacles accessing resources. 

“We typically think of men having a lot of power because on a societal level; they tend to have more power than women. That may or may not be reflected within an intimate relationship,” said Hines.

Men are typically thought of as having a lot of power because on a societal level; they tend to have more power than women though that may not be reflected within an intimate relationship. (source: hi.in.facebook.com)

According to Hines, there are only three shelters nationwide that accept cisgender men. There are also few options for LGBTQ+ survivors.

In the 21 years William Long has been involved with Option House, he says there have only been two men who have sought services there. 

He urges men, who are reluctant, to seek help. 

Option House is one of a coalition of shelters located within the Inland Empire that provides services. They assist clients with housing, clothing, and legal services like filing a restraining order.

“It takes an average of seven times of [calling for help] to leave a relationship,” said Long. “Make that move, for your children and for your life.” 

If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, local and statewide resources can be found here.

Katie Licari

Katie Licari is a freelance journalist with Black Voice News. She has previously reported for CalMatters, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the LAIST. In 2019 she was a LA Press Club finalist in the New Feature Category. When she isn’t reporting she can be found gardening in her community garden plot.