Domestic Policy | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Domestic Policy

After promoting three police officers accused of domestic abuse in 2007, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has sometimes been accused of ignoring the problem. 

No one's saying that now. If anything, say experts, his first draft of a citywide domestic-violence policy might need to focus a bit less on abusers -- and more on victims. 

During the promotions uproar, Ravenstahl announced a "zero tolerance" domestic-abuse policy for police. When one of those officers, Sgt. Eugene Hlavac, was brought up on a similar allegation late last year anyway, Ravenstahl fired him -- and announced plans to apply the policy city-wide. 

In a Jan. 7 statement, Ravenstahl spoke of a duty to ensure that "residents feel safe in the presence of all city employees," he said, "be it an officer, a Citiparks employee ... or a snowplow-truck operator." Introduced to Pittsburgh City Council on Jan. 20, the new "zero tolerance" policy would apply to every employee, "whether sworn or civilian." 

Domestic-violence advocates and researchers, who have been meeting with the administration, commend Ravenstahl for proposing the measure. 

"The mayor is really telling us, 'We want to have an ordinance that makes sense and is workable,'" says Patricia Cluss. 

Cluss heads up a new domestic-violence initiative called Standing Firm, a fledgling effort to get employers to take note of domestic-abuse issues among their employees. Ravenstahl's initiative, she says, might inspire other employers to craft policies, too. Currently, Cluss knows of only two local employers who have done so: UPMC and the National Council of Jewish Women.

Ravenstahl's four-page bill envisions creating an Employee Domestic Violence Review Board to review incidents of domestic violence involving city workers, in hopes of recommending training procedures and other policies to eliminate it. 

"All department heads must establish and follow procedures for handling acts of domestic violence committed by their employees." If, for example, an employee is charged with domestic abuse, or is the subject of a Protection From Abuse order (PFA), the city's law, personnel and public-safety departments "shall be consulted immediately regarding continued employment." 

Perhaps not surprisingly -- given the bill's origins in controversy -- the draft legislation largely focuses on cases where a city worker is the abuser, rather than the abused. Most such policies are written the other way around. 

For example, the clothing company Liz Claiborne -- whose policies are cited as a model by advocates -- offers an Employee Assistance program that directs victims to counseling services. The company also offers services like special parking spots (to cut down on the risk of being accosted by a stalker) and escorts to and from the car. Other services range from help with phone-call screening to flextime so employees can attend PFA hearings. The policy has much less to say about abusers, though it threatens potential disciplinary action for threats or actions made "while using workplace resources."

"We don't recommend zero-tolerance language," says Kimberly Wells, executive director of the Illinois-based Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence. A zero-tolerance policy for police is one thing, she says: Cops have guns, and abuse victims may be wary of seeking protection from an abuser's coworkers. "But other municipal employees may have a different standard."

"What to do with batterers [on the payroll] is the million-dollar question," says Wells. "Unless they are using your office -- your time or your stuff -- how far does the employer's reach extend?" Simply telling employees not to use company e-mail or phone lines to send threats may not seem terribly effective, Wells acknowledges. But it at least sends a message to an abuser that the behavior is wrong.

By contrast, firing a worker for a PFA is fraught with difficulty. 

"PFAs have evolved to be a quick remedy: 'Somebody is in trouble, let's issue a PFA,'" says Cluss. But if filing a PFA could result in a job loss, judges might well hesitate before issuing one. "And if a victim thinks the children could lose their health insurance, it could cut down on the number of people filing PFAs."

Why is an employee's private life their boss' business at all? "That's a question I get asked a lot," says Cluss. But employees who are victims of violence often struggle with problems like absenteeism: Nationwide, some eight million work hours are lost to domestic violence every year, according to a 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control. There's a safety issue too: According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, one in four acts of workplace violence have roots in domestic abuse. 

That's why Wells credits Ravenstahl's efforts to begin the discussion: "Whatever the reasons are at the outset, I say 'yay,' to anyone setting out on this journey." Ravenstahl's bill isn't due for council action until mid-February -- a special meeting is slated for Feb. 15 -- which means there is plenty of time for discussion and revision.

What's key in that debate, says Wells, is to remember that anyone -- male or female, gay or straight -- can be a victim of abuse. (Accordingly, Ravenstahl's policy would apply to any city employee in a "dating relationship," regardless of marital status, gender or sexual orientation.) "You have to be sensitive about that," Wells says, "and not talk as if it happens only to someone who isn't in the room."