Allegheny police departments review domestic abuse response procedures
Many local police departments are taking a closer look at their domestic call response policy in light of a tragic event in Pittsburgh earlier this year.
Staff of the city's Citizen Police Review Board investigated the 911 call Ka‘Sandra Wade, 33, made a day before police found her dead of a gunshot at her Lowell Street home. Officers responding to the call on Dec. 31 left after Wade‘s boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, 51, of Point Breeze, spoke to them through a window but refused to let them in. The officers never spoke to Wade or confirmed that she was inside.
Brown confessed to killing her in a note and committed suicide during a standoff at his apartment on Jan. 2.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence defines domestic abuse as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against another.”
The coalition says one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women.
“We at the Center for Victims certainly recognize and support and understand the importance of law enforcement having solid and thorough domestic violence response policies,” said Bethany Wingerson, center director of domestic violence services. “We know that it's essential.”
Glassport and Clairton amended their domestic policies this year on a recommendation from the Allegheny County District Attorney's office. Other municipalities found their current procedures already address the county's updates.
“It gives you more bite into the investigation,” Clairton police Chief Rob Hoffman said. “Sometimes you can begin to answer the call for two individuals who are against each other. By the time you clear the call, they're both going against the officer. There's a state law that states if there's obvious injuries to the victim, one or both, that they need to be charged with domestic violence.”
“We are in fact in the process of revising our policy on domestic violence because of what happened in Pittsburgh,” White Oak police Chief Lou Bender said. “Once we revise our policy, we'll give it to the solicitor to review. We were given a sample policy from the district attorney's office.”
McKeesport police Chief Bryan J. Washowich said his department's policy advises officers to speak with the person who called in the complaint. He said the policy recommendation from the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association is under review, but appears to be similar to the one police are already following as standard operating procedure.
“It's a shame that a tragedy makes us revisit policy and procedures,” Washowich said.
Washowich and Glassport police Lt. Ron Benoit met Friday with Wingerson and Sandy Steffan, the center's coordinator of magisterial district courts and counselor advocate, to discuss domestic violence policies.
“I think it better defines what we're doing,” Benoit said. “I think most, if not all of our officers have been doing what's been presented from the district attorney's office already. I think this defines it in more detail.”
“You guys are really good at keeping people safe,” Steffan said. “I think working together a little bit closely, especially in this community that we're all in, will help prevent more tragedies like that from happening.”
“You must talk to the complainant,” longtime Liberty police Chief Luke Riley said. “It has been that way since I joined the force in 1973. If someone needs arrested, they get arrested.”
North Huntingdon Township police Chief Andrew J. Lisiecki said his department's policy does not need to be altered because it has various steps to reach the person making the call and/or the subject of the call.
“The officer also notifies the supervisor and makes sure that they do talk to the person or at least try to gain entry into the house to make sure everybody's OK,” Lisiecki said. “They are the more dangerous of the situations the officers can respond to. They are very unpredictable.”
Jefferson Hills police Chief Gene Roach said his borough always had a policy of making sure potential victims are safe before his officers leave the scene of a 911 domestic call.
“We did have since then, just an additional procedural memo,” Roach said, “just to reiterate, just to remind officers as often as we can.”
“The borough of East McKeesport's policy was and always has been, even prior to that (Pittsburgh) incident, to speak to all parties of a domestic incident,” said Chief Russell Stroschein, whose officers also patrol Wall.
“If we get a 911 hang-up, even if dispatch calls back and someone answers the phone, it is our policy that we go to that door, we knock on that door, we make contact with everyone in that house,” Port Vue police Chief Bryan R. Myers said.
Myers said that's been department policy for at least 10 years, when Port Vue was part of a regional 911 center handled by the Twin Rivers Council of Governments.
He said police “want to check everyone in the house” in a domestic incident to investigate for visible signs of injury.
“The law says if there is physical abuse and you can see it, you are required by law to make the arrest,” Myers said. “If you can physically see scratches, cuts, bruises, black eye or whatever.”
Additionally, the Port Vue chief said, “if both of them have marks, they both go … and more and more departments are doing that. Let the judge make the decision.”
West Homestead police Chief Christopher Deasy said, “I'm not at looking at it right now. I might further look into it in the near future.”
“We talk to both (parties),” Munhall police Chief Pat Campbell said. “It's been like that forever.”
“We talked about it with the solicitor because of changes that happened in Pittsburgh,” Versailles police Chief Bill Kruczek said. “Our solicitor is looking into our policies here.”
North Versailles Township amended its policy last month.
“It was a recommendation from the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association,” police Chief Vincent DiCenzo Jr. said. “They sent out a revised sample of domestic violence. When I read through it, it was pretty much what we had in place.”
“Our current policy is similar, but just not in the same words,” Homestead police Chief Jeff DeSimone said. “I want to adopt the DA's policy, but I need to consult with our solicitor on it.”
He said the district attorney's example is more detailed.
“We were always supposed to talk to both people in the house,” Whitaker police Chief John Vargo said.
State police often take both parties into custody in a domestic dispute. The Greensburg barracks covers much of Westmoreland County, including back-up duty in Irwin and North Irwin.
Tribune Review News Service and staff writers Patrick Cloonan, Stacy Lee and Eric Slagle contributed to this story.
Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965 or firstname.lastname@example.org.