City police begin policy on domestic violence

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Pittsburgh police brass are confident a new domestic violence protocol going into effect Monday will save lives and not unduly slow down response times to other calls.

Through the new technique -- which comes nearly a year after a Larimer woman was killed after a disconnected 911 call -- officers responding to domestic violence calls will offer suspected victims an 11-question survey designed to determine how likely it is their partners will kill them.

Nationally, only 4 percent of those killed by domestic violence ever use prevention services, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In the new Pittsburgh program those determined to be at-risk can be connected on the scene via cell phone with officials at the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh for possibly live-saving help.

The 50 other, smaller police departments statewide using similar programs have found 78 percent of victims have called their local domestic violence programs for assistance. In Maryland, where the protocol originated, domestic violence deaths have decreased by 40 percent.

Pittsburgh officers used to give suspected victims a card with information on services. Now all police supervisors will have cell phones that will be taken to scenes to call the Women's Center -- without the abusive partner being privy to the call -- for the victim to get information on legal help, counseling, shelter and other services.

Under the old system "50 percent of people never make that phone call," said Women's Center president Shirl Regan. "This way they get to talk to a live human being and get to hear there is somebody who can listen to them, care about them and help provide them with the next steps toward their safety. For that reason we believe this will be very successful."

By working directly with the Women's Center, said acting police Chief Regina McDonald, "it is our goal to not only educate but save lives."

Officers have been trained the last two weeks on the new program. Some, including leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police, have questioned whether the questionnaire, accompanying paperwork and delivery of cell phones to scenes will tie up the bureau, which is already under-staffed, and keep police from responding quickly to other crimes.

Sgt. Eric Kroll, the training coordinator at the Pittsburgh Police Academy, said the process should only take about 15 minutes -- five minutes to fill out the 11-question form (which is submitted online from squad cars) and another 10 minutes to call the Women's Center, if deemed necessary.

Officers are trained to rule a domestic situation life-threatening if suspected victims respond affirmatively to any one of three initial questions on whether their partners have ever threatened to kill them. If victims respond affirmatively to four of eight following questions -- covering issues such as employment, gun ownership and violent encounters -- police will also call the Women's Center.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported on the roll-out of the new protocol on Thursday.

Pittsburgh City Council approved legislation from Councilman Ricky Burgess in May mandating the Maryland system, called the Lethality Assessment Program. It came in response to the shooting death of Ka'Sandra Wade, who was found slain less than a day after she called 911 last New Year's Eve. Two officers dispatched to her Larimer apartment left after speaking to her boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, who later admitted to killing her and then committed suicide.

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