Citizen Police Review Board investigating handling of Hill District woman's domestic violence reports
June 7, 2009 8:00 AM
Donna Williams outside Domestic Violence Court at the Pittsburgh Municipal Courts Building.
By Rich Lord Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The second time Robert L. Taylor beat Donna Williams, she had to bite off part of his finger to make him stop, according to court filings. By the time she escaped from what she called a weekend as his hostage, she was determined that her former boyfriend of three years wouldn't hurt her a third time.
But Ms. Williams' subsequent visit to Pittsburgh's Zone 2 police station did not bring a swift end to her troubles, much as her 911 call after the first incident of abuse four months earlier brought only a respite. Decisions, errors and communication breakdowns in the courts and police combined to give Mr. Taylor five weeks of freedom and sentenced Ms. Williams to more than a month of fear.
Given the way her case has been handled, his incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail since May 28 hasn't made her feel safe.
"When he gets released, he's going to remember why he was down there," she said.
Ms. Williams' case is now the subject of a Citizen Police Review Board investigation. It comes two years after the Pittsburgh Police Bureau's sensitivity to domestic violence became an issue, with the promotions of three officers who had faced abuse allegations.
Before and since then, domestic violence advocates said, the bureau has worked to improve training on handling domestic violence cases. Nonetheless, halting, hesitant responses to abuse allegations aren't unusual around the region. Ms. Williams' story "seems like one of the worse situations I've heard, but it's far from the only one," said Bethany Wingerson, program coordinator for Womansplace, a McKeesport-based domestic violence shelter and program.
Mr. Taylor, 36, is no stranger to city police. Since 1996 he has faced a string of drug and burglary charges. Last year he violated probation on a 2006 drug case by failing to report his address and submit to urinalysis, resulting in a warrant issued Feb. 19, 2009, to bring him to court.
In December, Ms. Williams called the police to her Hill District apartment and showed them red marks on her neck. She said the 250-pound Mr. Taylor had grabbed her by the throat, dragged her down the steps to the street, threatened her with death, taken her purse and locked her out.
It took police more than two months to arrest Mr. Taylor, after which he spent a month in the Allegheny County Jail. Despite his history of probation violation, on March 10 he was sentenced to 18 months of probation after a guilty plea negotiated by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office and approved by Common Pleas Judge Edward J. Borkowski.
That may have been the result of a communication gap.
Mr. Zappala's spokesman, Mike Manko, said prosecutors don't know about probation violation warrants unless police tell them. In Mr. Taylor's case, "if we would have known, we would have made that an issue" at the sentencing, he said.
James Reiland, director of the Allegheny County Probation and Parole Department, said the courts are allowed to put probation violators back on probation, noting that his office isn't represented at such hearings, and thus can't object.
For some domestic abusers, a sentence of probation is almost a vindication, said Ms. Wingerson. "They feel that it's a victory in some way, that they got away with something."
Ms. Williams and Mr. Taylor separated. But 16 days after he got out of jail, she told police, on April 18 he caught her in her apartment building hallway, dragged her up the stairs, choked and punched her, and then told her he had "thought about it all night. I'm killing you and waiting for the police to get me." When she yelled for help, she said he knocked her down, kneeled on her chest, and tried to choke her. She said he bit her right cheek; she bit a chunk from his finger.
Cell phone pictures of her face taken days after the incident showed her right cheek pocked with whitish tooth marks. Mr. Taylor had her take him to UPMC Mercy and back, and then hovered over her for two days, barring her from leaving the apartment or making phone calls without him listening in.
When he finally left, she called a relative, who picked her up. After getting her wounds treated, they went to the Zone 2 police station in the Hill, then to court for a protection-from-abuse order, then back to the station to have it served and to file a report. Police obtained an arrest warrant for Mr. Taylor.
The accusations in the PFA could have been enough to prompt a revocation of Mr. Taylor's probation for the December attack. But there is no system to notify the probation office of PFAs, according to Mr. Reiland, whose office issued a probation violation warrant May 27.
In early May, Ms. Williams said she repeatedly called the station to ask if police had found Mr. Taylor. She said an officer asked her to set up a meeting with him so they could collar him, but she was too afraid. She told them she was scared to stay in her apartment, especially with her 9-year-old son, who had not witnessed the abuse.
"The police kept saying, 'Have a Plan A, and a Plan B' " for escaping should he try to catch her there, she said.
A widely used 15-point assessment of danger to domestic violence victims includes at least six "risk factors" present in her case: increased frequency of violence, increased severity, choking, drug use by the aggressor, a death threat, and jealous or controlling behavior. According to research by Professor Jacquelyn C. Campbell, of Johns Hopkins University, that put her between "great risk" and "very grave risk" of being killed.
In a typical year, Allegheny County sees upward of 10 domestic violence-related homicides, according to the Women's Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. For Ms. Williams, the danger level was about to rise, precisely because she had helped police to find Mr. Taylor, only to have them opt not to arrest him.
On May 3, he called her from Mercy Hospital. "He was all crying that they were about to cut his finger off," due to an infection, she said. She called 911 to report his whereabouts. Police served him with the PFA there, but left him.
According to Zone 2 Cmdr. George Trosky, a police supervisor "said to leave the guy there, because he was going to be in for a lengthy stay." Mercy Hospital security agreed to call the station when he was about to be discharged so police could arrest him.
The bureau sometimes arrests a hospitalized person and posts an officer outside the room, paying overtime so an officer does not have to be pulled off the streets. The Citizen Police Review Board began investigating Ms. Williams' case after receiving an anonymous tip, purportedly written by someone in the police bureau, suggesting the zone didn't want to incur overtime costs.
That expense did not factor into the decision not to guard Mr. Taylor, according to Cmdr. Trosky. He said the determination "was my supervisor's decision, and I'm going to stand by his decision," declining to explain how it jibes with bureau policy.
Cmdr. Trosky is one of three police officers promoted in 2007 who had faced accusations of domestic violence. In all cases, charges were dropped or never filed. Public backlash from the promotions, driven in part by fears of nonchalant police response to domestic violence cases, spurred new policies that kick in when police are accused of abuse.
The bureau's domestic violence arrest policy, issued in 2006, requires any domestic violence arrest warrant "will be executed as soon as possible."
"Arrest is a really important deterrent and the best way to protect the victim," said Lorraine Bittner, legal director of the Women's Center & Shelter. If there's visible injury to the victim, a credible witness or physical evidence, "then the police are now recommended by procedure and by law to make an arrest."
Such policies developed over the last 20 years, improving upon old-school practices like walking the aggressor around the block and then leaving the matter "in the family," she said. Police Bureau training in the new policy has greatly improved, she added.
In Ms. Williams' case, Cmdr. Trosky said the promised call from hospital security regarding Mr. Taylor's departure "never happened." Mercy spokeswoman Linda Ross, though, said the hospital's security department called Zone 2 at 8:32 p.m. on May 3, after Mr. Taylor left without doctor approval.
Ms. Williams said she got a call from Mr. Taylor the day after the PFA was served. He told her: " 'My peoples are looking for you ... so you'd better watch your back,' " she said. "I couldn't sleep for a minute behind that."
She said she told police about the call, and about an apparent break-in to her apartment. She said she also called police when Mr. Taylor spotted her car outside of her grandmother's house, called her cell phone and ordered her to "get the [expletive] outside." She said police came, but could not find him.
Cmdr. Trosky said his records don't reflect those calls.
Ms. Williams continued the process of getting a permanent PFA that would order Mr. Taylor to stay away for three years. At the beginning of that process, she provided advocates working at Family Court with Mr. Taylor's correct date of birth. But in a clerical error, a digit was later dropped from his birth date, which was then entered incorrectly in computers -- an error that would get him 16 days of freedom.
On May 11, police set out to serve Mr. Taylor with notice of a PFA hearing the next day. They found him in an alley between Fifth and Forbes avenues in the Bluff. But because of the birth date error, a database check didn't turn up the arrest warrant the zone had generated 19 days earlier. Police left him free.
They finally arrested him on May 27, and he's now charged with simple assault, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint and stalking. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday, waived his preliminary hearing, and got bond reduced from $100,000 to $25,000, straight.
Ms. Williams and her son continue to stay with family, struggling to keep their temporary homelessness from disrupting her health-care career and his attendance at third grade. Her son, she said, has become more agitated, and she is trying to find a new home, away from the Hill.
An experience like hers leaves a victim feeling that there "are failed systems around you," said Ms. Wingerson. "The effect on the psyche is absolutely crushing."