Zero tolerance for domestic violence

Pittsburgh must stand against domestic abuse, especially within its police department

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It is time for our community to recognize domestic violence for what it is: a serious crime. To do so, we need public officials and law enforcement officers held accountable to a standard of zero tolerance for domestic violence.


Heather Arnet is executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation (heather@wgfpa.org) and Kristy Trautman is the program officer for FISA Foundation (kristy@fisafoundation.org). They wrote this on behalf of the Women's Funders Roundtable of Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania.


Last week our community was outraged to learn that three of four recently promoted Pittsburgh police officers had been accused of domestic abuse, two with charges pending against them. This week we were reminded in the most tragic way why it is crucial to heed the early warning signs of domestic abuse when an Ohio police officer, Bobby Cutts Jr., was accused and arrested for killing his pregnant girlfriend, Jessie Davis.

As the officer was held for trial, a former girlfriend, Nikki Giavasis, told police of accusations she had made in 1998 to Los Angeles police. Ms. Giavasis had told police that she and Mr. Cutts had had several physical confrontations and that she had "feared for her safety." Mr. Cutts pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge and was sentenced to three years' probation. But no domestic violence charges were filed so he was able to keep his badge and gun.

Law enforcement officers hold unique positions of public trust and their actions on and off the job shape public opinion about crime and justice. One reason to demand that they meet a standard of zero tolerance for domestic violence is that domestic and sexual violence are among the most underreported crimes in this country. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only half of domestic violence crimes are reported to police.

Victims are reluctant to press charges, especially against police officers, for a variety of reasons, including concerns that they will not be believed or that the abuse will be minimized or excused by those in authority. These fears are, unfortunately, often confirmed by fact.

The shootings at Virginia Tech are a case in point. The first call made to police that day about the murder of a young woman in her dorm room was immediately classified by campus police as a "domestic disturbance." As is often the case, the response was therefore limited. Had police responded quickly and considered the broader ramifications for campus and community safety -- had this shooting been treated like any other murder rather than a domestic dispute -- perhaps other lives could have been saved. Indeed, the Virginia Tech shooter had a record of stalking and several female students had reported his disturbing behavior.

As articulated in a paper by the National Center for Women and Policing, "Victims of domestic violence by a police officer fear calling the police because they know the case will be handled by officers who are colleagues and friends of their abuser. They typically fear that the responding officers will side with their abuser and fail to properly investigate or document the crime."

The recent Pittsburgh police promotions raise concerns because the public perception of the integrity and objectivity of police officers and how the police force views domestic violence will increase or decrease the reporting of this type of crime in our region.

Last week, Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson was quoted as saying, "You know what the problem is with police officers? What we make of them. They're human beings, and just like other human beings, they have problems."

Indeed, most police officers are courageous individuals of integrity who work tirelessly and selflessly to protect our laws and defend the helpless. However, according to the National Center for Women and Policing, domestic violence is two to four times more common in police families than in the general population. In two separate studies, 40 percent of police officers self-reported that they had used violence against their domestic partners within the past year. Among the general population, domestic violence is estimated to occur in about 10 percent of families.

Still, and despite the fact that the International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed a model policy for how police agencies should handle domestic violence by police officers, the National Center for Women and Policing found in a nationwide survey of 123 police departments that 45 percent reported having no specific policy.

Our intention is not to demonize police officers but rather to shine a light on the dark secret that domestic violence does occur within police families and that, just as for people in other walks of life, domestic violence in the home often leads to violent acts at the workplace and throughout the community. Domestic violence is a crime and, like other criminal acts, it can snowball if ignored. Just ask the families of Jessie Davis or those murdered at Virginia Tech.

Instead of treating these instances as "private matters" we need to begin a serious discussion about how we can eliminate this form of violent crime from our communities. Engaging police forces in adopting personnel policies that treat this crime seriously is a powerful place to start.

Viewing violence against women as a private or personal issue hurts everyone. In Allegheny County alone last year, more than 28,000 domestic-violence victims sought services to help them recover; this number of women, children and men could fill the Benedum Center, Heinz Hall and the O'Reilly Theater four times over. These individuals are mothers, daughters and sons, but they also are employees and students whose lives and well-being affect the social and economic health of our region.

As foundation leaders who invest in this region, we urge Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and other public leaders to take a stand against domestic and sexual violence by enacting and implementing the best practices recommended by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and by assuring the public that all appropriate investigations have been conducted and policies followed in the cases of the promoted Pittsburgh police officers.

Pittsburgh can make national news on this issue. The question is, what do we want the headlines to say?



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