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Domestic violence experts applaud new plan

| Friday, Oct. 29, 2004

PITTSBURGH -- An Allegheny County judge approved a plan Thursday that domestic-violence experts and the county's top prosecutor say will improve protection for abuse victims.

Judge Joseph James approved a request by District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. to allow law-enforcement authorities to create a centralized computer database of arrest warrants in domestic-abuse cases.

The database, to be maintained by the county sheriff's department, will let police departments throughout the county know of warrants issued against people who violate protection-from-abuse-orders.

The change makes it safer and less complicated for victims of domestic violence to navigate the court system, said Alle-Kiski HOPE Center Executive Director Michelle Bond.

"This is just a tremendous step forward," Bond said.

The new database will be in place Nov. 15, Bond said. Once it's available, police will be able to access the centralized list of people for whom there are warrants stemming from PFA violations.

Now, domestic-abuse victims who seek protection-from-abuse-orders only to see their abusers violate the orders have to file warrants themselves with the police department in the community where their abuser lives.

"They were sending victims back into the area where the abuser was," Bond said. "Not only was this dangerous, but it's confusing, and many women just weren't filing those warrants."

In Allegheny County, courts grant about 5,000 protection-from-abuse-orders each year. Now, without a centralized database, there is no way to know how many warrants are issued for people who violate those orders, Bond said.

Zappala was moved the ask for the change after the murder of a Pittsburgh woman whose estranged fiance abducted her from a church and killed her after a police chase in April.

Courts had issued a protection-from-abuse-order requiring Alvin Starks, 30, of Windgap to stay away from Andrea Umphreys, 35, eight weeks before the killing.

Starks is awaiting trial on homicide charges in that case.

Starks was the subject of at least three restraining orders in the past three years and had violated two of them. When he appeared in court on another matter just three days before Umphreys' death, police didn't have access to a database that would have shown outstanding warrants for his arrest.

In the Valley, a West Deer man also is awaiting trial for allegedly killing his estranged wife, who had a protection-from-abuse-order against him. Scott Werner is accused of killing Edith Werner at his Reaghard Drive home in June.

Edith Werner had sought a protection-from-abuse-order one week earlier, telling authorities her husband had threatened to kill her.

After drug crimes and drunken driving, domestic abuse is the most common crime in Allegheny County, Bond said.

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