Pittsburgh City Council advances bill on domestic violence

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Pittsburgh City Council agreed Wednesday on what women's groups call landmark special training for police officers answering domestic violence calls and put off more controversial aspects in a package of bills.

After several hours of discussion and a series of amendments, council gave preliminary approval to a bill that will require all officers to ask victims a series of questions when they answer a domestic violence call, part of a program called the Maryland Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment Program. The questions lead to a numerical risk factor for violence and the officer then offers to call a shelter on behalf of the victim rather than merely suggesting the victim seek help.

Women's groups attending the meeting clapped when council voted unanimously to move ahead with the bill.

After the meeting, Maryellen Deckard of Action United called it "the most significant piece of legislation for women in this city in decades."

The package of bills was assembled by Councilman Ricky Burgess in response to the death of Ka'Sandra Wade, who was found slain less than a day after she called 911 on New Year's Eve. The two officers who went to her Larimer apartment left after speaking to her boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, who later admitted to killing her before he committed suicide.

Last week, the package of bills became controversial when Mr. Burgess tried to include a provision recommended by the law department to remove from the city code a zero-tolerance policy for police officers accused of domestic violence. The law department said making the code only apply to police officers rather than all city employees made it hard to enforce when officers challenge their dismissal.

Women's groups who had not discussed the issue and other council members objected to that proposed change.

On Wednesday, Mr. Burgess said that had been added by accident. He had members move that provision to another bill and delayed action on it until it can be considered by a domestic abuse advisory board, which would be created by another bill in the package.

Mr. Burgess said he was satisfied with Wednesday's outcome, especially since the other pieces of legislation will be up for more discussion.

"From the beginning, my goal was to bring the Maryland lethality assessment to the city of Pittsburgh," he said, calling it "lifesaving."

The legislation also failed to include one piece the women's groups have been pushing for in the wake of the Wade case: requiring police officers to talk with whoever makes a 911 call. That issue also will be referred to the advisory council once it is formed, but Mr. Burgess said it may be too restrictive and cumbersome for officers to make it a law.

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said the department is developing a policy to deal with the issue. Ms. Deckard said she would prefer a law.

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Moriah Balingit contributed. Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470. First Published May 8, 2013 12:30 AM


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