City takes 'unfortunate' stance on police PFAs

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Experts who take a hard line in dealing with police officers accused of domestic violence recommend a range of approaches by departments, including temporarily putting alleged abusers on desk duty, taking away their guns or forbidding contact with their accusers.

Pittsburgh employs none of those techniques, hewing instead to a mostly hands-off policy.

Petitions for protection-from-abuse orders alleging that a police officer has engaged in violent domestic behavior generate little more than paperwork in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

PFAs are a civil matter, and the department essentially cedes discretion to the court over how to handle the situation. An officer accused by a spouse or significant other is typically allowed to go back to work as though nothing happened as long as there is no arrest. There is no requirement for any internal conference to weigh the officer's work status.

"That's unfortunate," said Charles "Joe" Key, a police consultant and former lieutenant with the Baltimore Police Department. "You can't just say arbitrarily, 'He hasn't been arrested, indicted, we're not doing anything,' because that can go bad real quick."

Mr. Key recommends quickly addressing the officer's status if the allegations are serious enough.

"If the incident is such there's a potential danger to other people, it would be best practice to remove them from the street," Mr. Key said. "You've got an armed individual out there involved in a potentially violent incident and may seek redress. You don't want to get the call that says, 'Miss Smith is deceased with a departmental gun.' Baltimore has had more of its share of those."

Updating city's policies

The issue is now front and center in the Pittsburgh bureau, where at least 34 current officers have been defendants in PFAs. Top brass recently promoted three officers whose histories included accusations of domestic abuse that did not include protection orders.

In a handful of the PFA cases, judges have ordered the removal of firearms but allowed defendants to keep their service weapons. The city refused to release information about discipline taken against any of those officers, citing confidentiality.

City officers who are accused of domestic violence in PFAs but not arrested do not appear to be subject to any internal investigation beyond monitoring of their court situations.

They can keep their service weapons unless a court orders them confiscated, usually at the request of the person seeking a PFA. And they are not removed from contact with the public while the matters wind through the court system.

Under pressure from City Council and various public interest groups, Police Chief Nathan E. Harper is updating the bureau's policies regarding officer-involved domestic disputes. One of the changes he plans is to authorize an "administrative investigation" of all domestic violence incidents.

Hubert Williams, who ran the Newark Police Department in New Jersey for 11 years and is president of the Police Foundation think tank, expressed surprise that police brass in Pittsburgh are not more proactive.

"I'm surprised, quite frankly, because I know they just got out from under a consent decree, because this is the kind of thing that opens the door to outside intervention in internal affairs. If we're going to let the courts decide whether the officer's conduct was appropriate, it's problematic," Mr. Williams said.

The bureau was under federal oversight from 1997 to 2002 after the U.S. Justice Department said it could prove a "pattern and practice" of police misconduct.

"If the evidence indicated the likelihood that this officer did this, if I were in command of the police department, the officer would be assigned to a lighter duty until we can conduct a more in-depth investigation," Mr. Williams said.

"Let's say they do nothing. The guy carries a gun, goes home and kills the wife. The issue becomes the liability of the municipality of this officer's conduct. Was it put on reasonable notice that this officer was involved in abusive conduct, and does it have some responsibility to take some action? Before it gets to the point of some legal requirement to take the gun away, the police chief can take the gun away," Mr. Williams said.

In Baltimore, a protection order filed against an officer merits a suspension while the situation is sorted out internally.

"If someone has issued a protective order against you we cannot in good faith allow you to walk around and carry a weapon," police spokeswoman Officer Nicole Monroe said.

Removing the gun

Removing an officer's duty weapon following an allegation of domestic violence is a controversial proposal, one not uniformly embraced.

"Victim advocates say do whatever is best to keep our victim safe, which sometimes is not stripping the officer of his weapon and 'identity' by placing him on a desk assignment," said Dottie Davis, who runs Davis Corporate Training Inc. and is deputy chief of the Fort Wayne, Ind., police department.

Others see seizing a weapon as an unfair response to an unsubstantiated allegation. In Pittsburgh, the chief lets the court make the decision.

"If the PFA order requires that the officer not be permitted to have any weapons, then the weapons are held at the police department or the sheriff's department. In that case, the officer would not be permitted to come back to work, because they can't come to work without their firearm," Chief Harper said.

Ms. Davis recommends issuing a gun only during the officer's tour of duty if a protective order is in place.

That is currently the case with one Pittsburgh police officer under a PFA who must sign his gun out of the station and return it at the end of his shift.

Jacqueline Morrow, city solicitor for 12 years under Mayor Tom Murphy, said it is not so simple for a chief to remove an officer's gun.

If the court rules that an accused officer can carry a gun while on duty, "the chief would've had to find an independent grounds to take the gun away," she said.

"We didn't have any power under the bargaining agreement to say, because we do not like the fact that you had a PFA, you're not allowed to carry your gun on duty," said Ms. Morrow.

David R. Thomas, a former police corporal in Montgomery County, Md., and now an expert on police domestic violence policy at Johns Hopkins University, takes a different stance.

"I don't care what the judge says," Mr. Thomas said.

"I base my decisions on the facts and circumstances that are established in my investigation. The court's finding is a whole different process. It's apples and oranges."

Mr. Thomas spoke earlier this month at a City Council hearing on the issue.

Many departments don't allow unsubstantiated domestic violence allegations to derail an officer's chance for advancement or hiring. Chief Harper said in the future a PFA could be a disqualifier in both cases. The matter is under review.

As for temporarily placing an officer on desk duty, it is not as easy as it sounds. The police union in Pittsburgh acknowledges that the chief has broad management rights including the power to transfer and suspend with pay.

But Ms. Morrow said the practice of moving someone barred from carrying a gun to desk duty was ended because it was fraught with potential legal problems when certain officers with "serious issues" were not offered that option.

Some filed discrimination claims, leaving the administration in the uncomfortable position of explaining why one officer who was not allowed to use a weapon was given desk duty, while another wasn't.

Policies in Pittsburgh today for investigating officers accused of domestic violence seem less rigorous than those that existed under Ms. Morrow's tenure.

Then, the city's Office of Municipal Investigations conducted vigorous investigations if someone filed for a PFA against an officer, Ms. Morrow said. She supervised the office for five years, beginning in the late 1990s.

"You get the records, you talk to the victim, and you bring in the officer," she said. "We had a terrible time getting spouses to cooperate. It's one thing to file for a PFA, it's quite another to end a spouse's career."

As a result of a spouse refusing to cooperate, OMI often had to settle for ruling the case inconclusive. Under the consent decree, that did not mean that nothing would come of it.

A series of inconclusive cases plus one finding of a violation constituted "an indication that something was amiss, and then we could conduct retraining."

"Matter for the court system"

Today, OMI is made aware of a PFA filed against an officer, but "the matter is one for the court system. Where appropriate, OMI will monitor the legal proceedings," Kate De Simone, an assistant city solicitor, wrote in response to questions from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Many police departments have an internal affairs division that responds to PFAs filed against officers or 911 calls to an officer's house for domestic violence. The Pittsburgh bureau does not have such a squad. It relies solely upon OMI, an independent entity, but one with both civilian and police investigators.

Some experts recommend that chiefs issue administrative orders of protection if there is any concern about an employee's behavior. Such an order might bar further contact with the victim at the risk of discipline if the order is violated.

Pittsburgh does not use such a tool. Instead, police spokeswoman Diane Richard said, the bureau relies on its policies and procedures governing officer conduct. There is no language mentioning domestic violence.


Staff writer Torsten Ove contributed. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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