"First Step" Taken Against Domestic Violence by Police | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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"First Step" Taken Against Domestic Violence by Police 

Shields introduces "zero tolerance" legislation

This summer's promotions of Pittsburgh police officers with domestic-abuse incidents in their pasts drew a firestorm of criticism from the community. In response, last week City Council President Doug Shields introduced legislation to amend the city code, providing departmental "zero tolerance" policies on domestic violence.

While not everyone is satisfied with the legislation as it now stands, Jeanne Clark of the National Organization for Women says it was "always intended as a first step," and that refinements to the ordinance are welcome and expected.

"This is not to suggest that this is a rampant runaway police department -- it is not," says Shields. But, he says, codifying internal policies is important: "Administrations come and go. By putting this into the [city] code it begins to set a standard you can't walk away from -- it's not an idea, it's the law."

The ordinance "offers a comprehensive, pro-active approach to domestic violence by Bureau employees with an emphasis on victim safety." If an employee is found to have domestic-violence convictions, "the Director of Public Safety, the Chief of Police, City Solicitor and Director of Personnel shall be consulted immediately regarding continued employment or duty assignment."

It also states that every officer will be required to undergo continued training on domestic violence recognition and prevention. Before hiring, prospective employees will be screened for domestic violence and aggressive tendencies -- those with "a history of perpetrating violence ... should be screened out." For those found to have abusive tendencies, "the Bureau should strongly consider a no-hire decision." After hiring, the bureau would be required to inform officers' families of the zero-tolerance policy.

Shields says that provisions for early intervention with potential abusers is a key part of the legislation. Domestic violence, he says, usually starts without a physical component and escalates. If an officer has received training to recognize the signs, Shields says, and sees in him- or herself the beginnings of a problem, perhaps he or she could seek help and prevent that escalation. "I certainly believe in redemption," he says.

"There are some areas that need to be bolstered," said Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, at its regular monthly meeting, on Sept. 25. "There are some obvious omissions. There's no role for the CPRB. Double standards could continue because it's closed, there's no external review."

"The policies are so nebulous," said board president Marsha Hinton. Both Hinton and Pittinger expressed concern about a lack of specific guidelines for officers under protection-from-abuse orders. A person under a PFA is not permitted to carry a firearm, but federal law provides an occupational exemption for law-enforcement or military work, which Hinton called "ludicrous."

"I have not been well received by the FOP, saying the bill goes too far," says Shields. "I have been criticized by advocates from other quarters who say it's been watered down."

The ordinance as it now stands codifies for the city the policies of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Clark cites a "matrix" of forces and interests that must be appeased in order for the legislation to pass, like civil-service rules and the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Right now, we've had lots of pretty words and no action," Clark says. "We need something right away so it doesn't drag on."

"We have nothing now, and it's time we did," Shields says.

Clark and Shields agree that an external body -- like CPRB -- is a crucial piece of enforcing the ordinance. "The CPRB has an obligation to be part of this process," Shields says, adding that Pittinger has been "a big part of this process."

Shields says he hopes to get a public hearing on the legislation scheduled, to get as much community input as possible.

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