Chief: Allegations of abuse to affect hires, promotions
September 11, 2007 4:00 AM
Shirl Regan, of the Women's Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh, speaks at yesterday's Pittsburgh City Council hearing. The cutouts behind her represent victims of domestic violence.
By Rich Lord and Jonathan D. Silver Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police will make several policy changes regarding the way it handles domestic disputes involving city police officers, and some of those changes will involve hirings and promotions, Police Chief Nate Harper said.
At a special meeting of City Council spurred by the June 18 promotions of three officers who have faced domestic abuse allegations, the chief outlined a series of changes that he hopes to have in place in less than two months.
Among those changes were thorough internal investigations of all family violence allegations against officers, involvement of his office in the handling of all such charges, disciplinary action when warranted, more thorough background checks and polygraph testing of new recruits, and better nonviolence training.
"Hopefully, within 45 days we'll have a news conference and we'll let everyone know that everything has taken place," Chief Harper said.
The changes come after nearly three months of outcry following the promotions. The anger was muted at the 31/2-hour meeting, but occasionally came through when advocates for women spoke.
"Do we really want to go on record as being the city that condones, and advances the careers of, police who are domestic batterers?" asked Jeanne Clark, of the National Organization for Women. "You, frankly, are sitting on a time bomb."
National family violence policy expert David R. Thomas, a former police corporal in Maryland, argued that while all professions include batterers, police officers often can avoid the negative consequences.
"If that abuser is an officer, they're going to be very familiar with the court process and very familiar with the personnel" investigating the matter, he said.
Women's advocates said that involving the Allegheny County district attorney or the Citizen Police Review Board in investigating charges of domestic abuse by police would prevent the mishandling of such cases.
"I feel that's a necessary step at this point, that the DA's office intervenes," Chief Harper conceded. "That's not in place yet."
Though supervisors must already respond to any domestic call at an officer's house, there is no standard protocol for handling such matters -- something the chief said he'd remedy. All reports on such cases will flow directly to his office, he said.
Not yet decided is whether a domestic violence allegation or the filing of a protection-from-abuse order will disqualify someone from being hired to, or promoted in, the bureau.
A PFA "could be a disqualifier for hiring" or promotion, the chief said. "We have to take a close look at it and see what we come up with."
Under current rules, the bureau looks for a pattern of violence and "we take that into consideration" in personnel decisions, he said.
PFAs can be obtained without the accuser meeting a high burden of proof, and Chief Harper said he wants council or the Civil Service Commission to guide him on how much weight they should be given in personnel decisions.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl watched the hearing on city cable from his office.
"Domestic violence is an issue of critical importance to me and my administration and we have been working with the police bureau, city officials and outside groups towards crafting a zero tolerance policy," he said in a statement that also backed the chief's pledges.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of civil court records found that 34 of the 846 city police officers have had PFAs filed against them since 1995. One officer subject to a current PFA must leave his service revolver at the zone station when he leaves work.
Chief Harper said current policy that allows an officer who is subject to a PFA to carry a gun while on duty, if the court permits that, will continue.
"We're required to respect that court order," he said.
If the court does not make an exception to the general rule that people under PFAs avoid carrying firearms, the officer can't work, he noted.
Councilman William Peduto said the city should explore a stricter policy.
"The best practice model for zero tolerance requires the officer to suspend carrying their weapon as soon as the accusation is made," he said.
A review of court records found no successful domestic violence prosecutions of current police bureau employees who have been subjects of PFAs.
Two officers who are subjects of PFAs are recruits. They were sworn in Aug. 20 and are to graduate from the Pittsburgh Police Academy Nov. 11. One was subject to two PFAs in 2001, and the other faced a PFA last year.
Another officer accused in a PFA was absorbed by Pittsburgh police from the city's Housing Authority police department in May and graduated Aug. 10.
Fraternal Order of Police President James Malloy said PFA filing numbers were much lower than in decades past.
"We have better-educated policemen today," he said. "They know very well that their careers hang on an allegation of domestic violence."
Chief Harper said he'd consider advocates' request that each squad car be equipped with a digital camera, and that officers be required to take pictures of alleged domestic abuse victims.
The promotions of Cmdr. George T. Trosky, Lt. Charles Rodriguez and Sgt. Eugene F. Hlavac -- the first two faced criminal charges that were withdrawn, and the third had two police calls to his house this year for loud arguments -- brought the issue of domestic violence in police families to the fore.
Yesterday's meeting "is the beginning, not the end," said council President Doug Shields. "Change is in the wind."