Pittsburgh council orders change in domestic violence policy

Woman’s murder prompts survey of suspected victims

Dec. 11, 2013
By Liz Navratil

Pittsburgh police will roll out a new domestic violence program next week, but it already has its critics, including the police union’s president who calls it well-intentioned but flawed.

Starting Monday, police officers responding to calls of domestic violence must offer the suspected victims an 11-question survey aimed at predicting the likelihood that they will be killed by their partners.

Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation requiring implementation of the Lethality Assessment Program — The Maryland Model after the January death of Ka’Sandra Wade, whose body was found inside her home a day after she made a call to 911 that was disconnected following a struggle.

Two Pittsburgh police officers left the home after speaking through a window only to her partner, who killed himself in a stand-off with officers the next day after tossing them a note suggesting they could have saved her. Ms. Wade’s call was not labeled as a domestic violence call by the 911 center, but rather as a call for “unknown trouble.”

City Councilman Ricky Burgess, who drafted the legislation, said he began looking at ways to address domestic violence in medical settings, social service settings and from a police perspective after Ms. Wade’s death. He said he liked the Lethality Assessment Program because he felt it addressed domestic violence from several perspectives.

“I’m not suggesting this program would have prevented her death. I’m saying it caused me to think about women in her position and things we can do to help women in her position,” Mr. Burgess said.

In response to concerns about possible drawbacks, Mr. Burgess said, “The proper implementation of these models is certainly left up to the department and I think that anything that we start new, there’s going to be some challenges and we’ll have to address those challenges as we go.”

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, said he has some concerns.

“I guess in just a few words, you’d like to say that if [the questionnaire] saves one person, then it’s worth the effort. That’s the positive way to looking at it,” Sgt. LaPorte said.

“From the other end of the spectrum, this is once again City Council trying to fix that which is not broken within the bureau of police.”

The Lethality Assessment Program, also known as the LAP, was created between 2003 and 2005 by a retired police officer, a nurse/researcher and a committee of others who hoped to provide officers with a standardized way to gauge someone’s potential of dying at the hands of a loved one.

Its creators say it is being used in 32 states, mostly in departments smaller than Pittsburgh’s.

Some departments that have used it have reported drops in the number of intimate-partner homicides. Critics caution it may not be fair to attribute that drop to the assessment alone because homicides are often influenced by multiple factors.

In Pittsburgh, officers responding to calls involving people in a current or past intimate relationship and in which an assault has occurred or police sense a potential for danger will be asked to separate the parties and ask the victims to complete a survey, which they can decline.

The first three questions ask the victims whether their partners have used or threatened to use a weapon against them, whether the partner has made death threats or whether they suspect their partners might try to kill them.

If they answer yes to any of those questions, the responding officer must call a supervisor, who will bring a department-issued cell phone to the scene to call a domestic violence hotline for the victim. Using a department phone protects victims whose partners might be tracing their calls.

Pittsburgh police responded to 12,438 domestic violence calls in 2012, an average of 34 a day, according to its annual report.

Sgt. LaPorte said he worries that requiring a supervisor to come to every domestic violence call is impractical and will further drain the bureau, which he feels is already short-staffed. He also said he wonders whether there will be instances when the policy will require additional officers to come to a scene.

Typically when a domestic violence arrest is made, the bureau sends two officers to ensure that no one is alone on a trip to the Allegheny County Jail with a potentially violent person, he said. Administering the survey, he said, could theoretically require the presence of a third officer.

“This policy isn’t final,” Sgt. LaPorte said. “I’m going to sit down with them and go over some things.”

He said, for example, that he might recommend handing the departmental cell phones to officers lower in rank than supervisors, who might be required at other crime scenes such as homicides.

Police will explain the program at a news conference Friday. Acting police Chief Regina McDonald, through a bureau spokeswoman, said she would not comment on the program before then.

David Sargent, a retired police officer who created the assessment while working with the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said officers often raise such concerns when he is training them to use the survey.

Mr. Sargent said he does not know of any research into whether administering the survey affected call-response times, but he added that most departments tell him those concerns die after officers become accustomed to the survey.

“If you do nothing, if you say it takes too long and you don’t have time for that, what happens then? Do you have a homicide?” Mr. Sargent said. “Consider the time that the investigation, all that time spent prosecuting the case, consider all the time that goes into that dynamic.”

The new policy will likely also impact the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which runs the 24-hour hotline the police bureau will call.

Currently, shelter president Shirl Regan said, officers respond to a domestic violence call and might leave a card with the hotline number on it. She expects an increase in calls under the new system.

Ms. Regan said she plans to move some of her employees off their current projects to handle the increase.

“It would be great if we had extra staff, but there is no additional money and it’s one of the things that we’re worried about,” she said. “In other cities such as Kansas City … they’ve seen a 20 percent increase in the need for services and there is no additional money for us to be able to hire more staff.”

Still, she said, she welcomes the program’s implementation.

“I really find that this tool helps women understand how much danger they are in when they may be discounting it themselves. When they say yes to these questions, they really realize, ‘I am in a dangerous situation.’ ”

The domestic violence survey

Here are the 11 questions that police officers responding to a domestic violence call must offer the suspected victims, starting Monday: Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?

  1. Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
  2. Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?
  3. Do you think he/she might try to kill you?
  4. Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?
  5. Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
  6. Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?
  7. Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
  8. Is he/she unemployed?
  9. Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?
  10. Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?
  11. Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave threatening messages?

Source: post-gazette.com