Police officers will tell you the call they dread the most is one for a “domestic disturbance” because they never know what exactly it is, and even one that seems relatively benign can escalate into an attack on the officers from one or both parties.
That still doesn’t mean officers who get those calls shouldn’t do their jobs, as it appeared was the case when Pittsburgh police officers Leon Schweitzer and Lance Hoyson failed to speak with Ka’Sandra Wade after she’d called 911 on New Year’s Eve.
They spoke instead to Anthony Brown—the man who shot Wade to death—through a locked door, taking his word that everything was okay. They left after 10 minutes.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner was unable to determine if she was alive when the officers were present. Brown shot himself after a standoff the following day.
On May 14, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation aimed at preventing similar future failures by requiring Bureau of Police personnel to undergo additional standardized training.
Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess proposed the legislation in response to Wade’s murder saying he hopes “it will save lives.”
The legislation calls for the mayor, public safety director and the Bureau of Police to contract with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. The nonprofits will be paid $25,000 to assist in implementing the Maryland Model Violence Lethality Assessment (LAP).
According to its website, when an officer arrives at a domestic call, if there is any doubt about the risk of lethality a victim may be facing, the officer…will ask a series of 11 questions, which can predict the victim’s risk of death.
Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger said though the LAP is an excellent assessment tool and she supports its implementation, the legislation doesn’t address the problems surrounding the Wade case.
“The first problem is it wasn’t a ‘domestic’ call. It was dispatched as ‘unknown trouble.’ And because some of the Emergency Operations Center functions are now automated, it wasn’t given top priority,” she said. “But they went to the address because the call was disconnected. They knew it was a female caller—and the male they spoke to blew them off. Could they have inferred trouble, should they have? Yes. The bottom line is she reached out to us and we didn’t help her. There’s no excuse.”
The review board forwarded a dozen recommendations to acting Chief of Police Regina McDonald aimed at addressing the multiple procedural shortcomings revealed in the Wade case.
Among these are: stationing police, fire and EMS officers at the EOC so ambiguous calls can be properly assessed before dispatch; developing a specific protocol for responding to “unknown trouble” calls that includes observing the caller in person and instituting a program where victims of domestic abuse could enroll their phone numbers with 911, so that calls could be flagged as possibly violent even if disconnected.
Last week, McDonald responded, saying the bureau has implemented or is considering seven of the recommendations—including specific protocols for “unknown problem” calls. The other five, dealing with call-taking and dispatch procedures, she said would have to be addressed by the county, even though EOC is a joint city/county operation.
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