The recent promotions of Pittsburgh police officers tainted by complaints of domestic abuse may just be the tip of more systematic problems plaguing the police force. Representatives of women's groups protesting the promotions say they're about to poke under the water to reveal the whole iceberg.
"The whole issue of promotion shows there are real problems with the police force. We know there is a fundamental problem when police brass doesn't understand what a criminal act domestic violence is," says Jeanne Clark, a member of the state board of the National Organization forWomen (NOW).
Clark and other local NOW members say they're looking at whether there's evidence of domestic violence victims not receiving the help they needed from police. While the group gets occasional calls from women making those claims, Clark says NOW is seeking to gather more such testimonies in a full-blown investigation.
However, those who have experience helping domestic violence victims advise that many women may not be in the position to speak out.
"It's not very safe for victims to come forward unless the incidents happened a long time ago," says Janet Scott, associate executive director of Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. "We would discourage them from coming forward because of the safety issues."
Clark, too, acknowledges that safety is an issue for victims who may aid NOW in the fact-finding. "We'll set up a system in which women can feel comfortable calling us," says Clark. "We'll figure out how to do it and still protect them."
The women's group is also counting on other women who may be in the position to be vocal--those from the rank and file of the police department.
"The police force has re-segregated," Clark says -- because of the shrinking ranks of female rookies and a growing number of women retirees. NOW wants to see if women remaining on the force might be facing discrimination.
Pittsburgh Police officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Clark says the group will consider filing a lawsuit if it can amass the evidence to support one, and, of course, it is still exploring legal recourses to overturn the promotions.
Meanwhile, the promotion controversy has garnered much national attention, not least from the Feminist Majority Foundation, co-founded by former Pittsburgher Eleanor Smeal. In the 1970s, as head of Pittsburgh NOW, Smeal, together with the local chapter of the NAACP, helped bring about a lawsuit against the police department. The suit resulted in a consent decree that opened the doors of the police academy for more women.
Smeal, now the foundation's president, says as she has watched the number of women on the city's force decline steadily, she discussed with local activists about seeking to re-institute the decree -- a month before the officers' promotions.
"I'm very worried about the decreasing number. The community can go backward," says Smeal. The promotions served to "activate everybody. There's a need for action."