PITTSBURGH — Domestic violence takes place behind drawn shades and frequently in front of children, who are often victims, and falls into the “dirty little secret” category of the law, where women’s voices and pleas fall on deaf ears. That’s about to change here.
A coalition of women’s groups, led by local chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW), stepped up to the mike before the City Council last month, demanding that the promotions of three police officers to command positions be rescinded because the three have been charged with domestic abuse. More than 150 women and men jammed council chambers in the middle of a weekday, bringing the “dirty little secret” out of the closet.
All nine City Council members and the Police Department brass, including Chief Nate Harper, heard testimony from nearly two dozen NOW members, victims of domestic abuse, and shelter providers. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who approved the promotions, was playing golf.
Phyllis Wetherby, a 30-year activist with NOW, reminded the council that Pittsburgh’s police department was once a model of diversity as a result of action by women’s and civil rights activists Alma Speed Fox and Jo Ann Evansgardner.
Wetherby said she was “appalled that the Pittsburgh mayor and Public Safety Department saw fit to promote a detective to commander over 107 qualified candidates on the Civil Service list. First on the list is a woman, Linda Dixon.”
She noted that, “because a conviction for domestic violence would jeopardize their right to carry a gun, and thus, their employment, police officers are more likely to be given a pass by investigating offices and by women victims who refuse to press charges.”
In fact, in the weeks following the June council hearing, charges were dropped against one officer and another was sent to anger management classes. The third’s record of a 1997 arrest for breaking his wife’s nose still stands.
Mayor Ravenstahl refused to reconsider the promotions and women’s groups continued to meet in growing numbers to discuss their next steps. “This is an opportunity for Pittsburgh to make national headlines,” Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “It’s up to us to determine what those headlines might be.”
Laura Randolph, executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, added: “A lot of damage has been done. This issue cannot be dismissed as being a women’s issue or unimportant. It requires [the mayor’s] consistent attention.”
Veteran NOW activist Jeanne Clark called the unity in the women’s rights community “extraordinary.” The coalition is contemplating a lawsuit. It is providing opportunities to police families to report domestic abuse and is supporting active police officers and department employees to address hostile workplace incidents. Shelter providers are proposing that every police station have a sensitivity trainer on duty.
The coalition is also pressing the City Council to hold a special meeting on promotions and family violence.
Local shelter providers reported that they served 28,000 domestic violence victims throughout Allegheny County, including Pittsburgh, last year.
According to the Center for Women and Policing, domestic violence occurs two to four times more in police families than the population as a whole. In two separate studies, 40 percent of responding police officers admitted to committing acts of domestic violence against their families. For non-law-enforcement families, domestic violence crimes occur in 10 percent of families.
The crisis in police families prompted the International Association of Police Chiefs to write a model policy regarding charges and acts of domestic violence by police officers. In a recent survey by the Center for Women and Policing, only 68 of 123 participating police departments said they had implemented the policy.