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Video to speed up protection orders

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County domestic violence victims no longer will have to travel to Night Court Downtown to request protection orders.

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Robert A. Kelly granted a request Tuesday from District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. to allow victims to request protection from abuse orders via a new video conferencing system beginning today.

Residents in far-flung regions of the county can now request the orders via video from police stations and hospitals after business hours. Judges viewing testimony on video at Night Court retain the authority to grant the orders.

Zappala, making his first courtroom argument since becoming district attorney in 1998, said the new system will allow victims to get restraining orders more quickly.

Zappala said 60 to 65 percent of protection orders are requested after regular business hours when victims must travel to Night Court to file their requests or wait until local district justice offices reopen in the morning.

"That 24 hours when somebody is subject to violence, or potentially subject to violence, is crucial," Zappala said.

Five video conferencing centers are to open today. They are at UPMC McKeesport, UPMC Passavant in the North Hills, the District Attorney's Office investigation center in Homestead and police stations in McKeesport and Forward Township.

Video links are also planned for police stations in Moon, Dormont, Robinson, Ross, Shaler, Upper St. Clair and other communities, Zappala said, as well as for several local hospitals.

Zappala told Kelly a $700,000 grant won by the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association provided much of the start-up money, with grants to police agencies and victim-advocate groups providing the rest of the funding.

Zappala, who said he misses making courtroom arguments, said he pursued the video conferencing idea personally because domestic violence trails only drunken driving and narcotics offenses as the most common crimes in Allegheny County Courts.

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