PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – When we hear about a Protection From Abuse Order, it’s usually because something tragic has happened, like the recent death of Pitt student Alina Sheykhet. We hear people ask the same thing, “What good did it do?”
But, when PFA’s save lives, we never hear about it.
Long before Sheyket’s death, KDKA Legal Editor Julie Grant was preparing a report on how our laws can be enhanced to make victims and police safer.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David Spurgeon has spent years helping domestic violence victims, first as a prosecutor and now as a judge.
“We hear about the examples when they don’t work, but every day there are so many people that are actually saved,” said Judge Spurgeon.
Family Division created a special docket for Judge Spurgeon to hear PFA cases because of his past experience advocating for victims. Judge Spurgeon will be the first to admit, PFA’s aren’t foolproof.
“Does everyone listen to every law or every court order? No, unfortunately they don’t, but the vast majority of people that obtain Protection From Abuse Orders do become safer as a result of it,” said Judge Spurgeon.
PFA’s give police more power to protect victims.
“If you have a PFA and someone calls or comes and violates it, the police have a mandatory arrest policy where they have to make that arrest. They don’t have to think about it. They don’t have to determine if there was a physical injury. It could be as simple as someone making a telephone call that could be a violation of it, depending on what it is,” said Judge Spurgeon.
Detective Tamara Hawthorne, who specializes in domestic violence cases, says what’s key is understanding it’s not about anger management.
“It’s about power, domination, and control,” said Det. Hawthorne.
Usually, the most dangerous time for a victim is when they leave.
“When the offender is losing power and control,” said Detective Hawthorne.
In 2016, there were 39,056 new PFA cases filed in Pennsylvania. In Allegheny County, there were 3,765 filed. In Beaver County, 487 were filed; in Butler County, 449 were filed; in Fayette County, 609 were filed; in Washington County, 584 were filed; and in Westmoreland County, 804 were filed.
“PFA’s protect people every single day,” said Michelle Gibb, Director of the Alle-Kiski Area Hope Center.
As a victims’ advocate, Gibb sees the protection firsthand, but admits there’s room for improvement.
“I like the idea of GPS monitoring. In the right framework, it can truly add to our ability to offer safety to victims,” said Gibb.
GPS monitoring would alert the victim if the defendant is coming near them.
“If that person has that ankle bracelet on, then that’s something that you can see where he’s at and where he’s been,” said Detective Hawthorne.
It could also make things safer for police.
“They are the most dangerous calls an officer can go on,” said Hawthorne.
We’ve seen officers killed responding to PFA violations. In 2016, Canonsburg Police Officer Scott Bashioum and State Trooper Landon Weaver were shot to death in two separate incidents.
“Someone thinks that their world’s collapsing and they often take very lethal, dangerous measures not only toward victims but also the police,” said Judge Spurgeon.
In addition to GPS monitoring, what about requiring law enforcement to serve all PFA’s? Right now, the way the law is written, a victim could have to serve their own.
“I would shudder to think that a victim would have to serve their own PFA,” said Gibb.
“I think it should be mandated by either police, or sheriffs, or possibly even constables serving them,” said Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen.
Sheriff Mullen also believes the 24-hour window defendants have to surrender their firearms should be tightened.
“I think show up at the door polite, but firm and show them the order that the firearms must be confiscated,” said Sheriff Mullen.
“I would like to see some provision where it was almost immediate,” said Gibb.
Right now, the law allows defendants to surrender their firearms to a “third party safekeeper” instead of the sheriff, which could make it easier for them to illegally take them back. One solution may be having law enforcement serve the PFA and confiscate any weapons at the same time.
“There’s no perfect way on this. We can sit and debate and consult with other people, but every situation is different,” said Sheriff Mullen.
Is the system perfect? No.
“We need to keep working on this,” said Judge Spurgeon.
However, the vast majority of people become safer because of PFAs.
Allegheny County is the only county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that has a specialized court for repeat batterers. The Pittsburgh Police Department is the largest in the state to do lethality assessments in domestic violence cases.