SHARON, Pa. (WYTV) – Police in Pennsylvania are taking a closer look at their policies when it comes to domestic violence calls and protection orders.They are working to gain more insight into a victim’s needs to keep them — and the officers — safe.
Domestic violence is not a new crisis. It happens all too often in homes across the country — including those in Mercer County.
The Devastating Effects of Abuse
It’s been five months since Sharpsville mother Amanda Downs was brutally killed in an apartment on New Year’s Eve. It’s a case that’s still sending shockwaves through the area and left her family and friends heartbroken. Ultimately, each of these deaths was at the hands of someone these victims knew and — at some point — loved.
According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 68 women and 45 men in the state have died due to domestic violence since 2015.
Since 2014, Hermitage, Sharpsville, and Sharon have been touched by deadly incidents and the number of deaths just continues to grow.
“We are very busy when it comes to domestic violence calls,” said Legal Advocacy Coordinator Rebecca Bruno for Mercer County’s domestic violence and sexual assault center AWARE.
So busy, in fact, that according to AWARE, the county alone receives anywhere from 475 to 500 requests for PFAs a year.
“That doesn’t count the ones that have been denied or don’t follow through,” said Mercer County Sheriff Gary Hartman.
The Gun Loophole Law Enforcement Wants to Close
A group of Pennsylvania lawmakers recently proposed legislation to put more grit into the state’s Protection From Abuse (PFA) laws, but they apparently disagree on at least one of the proposals in the package of bills — and guns are the reason.
In most cases, when someone is served a PFA order, they’re supposed to turn over all of their weapons. But by the way the law in Pennsylvania is written, it’s up to the person served to turn their weapons over to law enforcement or a relative within 24 hours.
That’s a major loophole that experts say desperately needs to be closed.
In the last 20 years, over 8,000 guns, knives, bows and arrows, and other weapons have been handed over to — or confiscated by — the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department. All were PFA defendants.
“The problem that we’ve seen with that over the last five years, is either the people that either haven’t turned in the weapons or we have to go back and try to track them down,” Hartman said.
He said too many people, including law enforcement officers, are dying because of PFAs.
Hartman also said when a judge issues one and rules someone can’t have weapons, deputies can’t legally go into a home to search for them. It’s up to the person to do the right thing. Then that person must sign an affidavit, saying he or she doesn’t have any weapons. The problem is it’s all based on the honor system.
“That honor system allows them to move weapons from the household, but they can put them in someone else’s household. They don’t have to take them to law enforcement. There’s no requirement of that,” Mercer County District Attorney Miles Karson said.
Hartman said that can create a very dangerous situation.
“Now it puts not only the public but the plaintiff on the PFA, the person who is being abused, at more risk and it also puts law enforcement at more risk.”
That’s where experts say the state is failing to keep people safe.
One of the recently proposed bills in this legislative package would require that the subject of a final PFA order surrender guns to law enforcement or a licensed firearms dealer, not a third party such as relatives or friends.
“This is a classic issue of two rights coming together. One person who wants to be secure in their person, free of threat of violence, and another person who wants to exercise their second amendment right,” Karson said. “So this can turn into a very hot topic, and people will line up on each side of the fence and so will legislators.”
Karson said he believes police, lawyers, victims, and advocates need to work together to identify all the system’s challenges.
“As long as we have people that are willing, people who have been victimized are willing to stand up and testify in court, we’re gonna be right with them.”
“We have a great working relationship with the prothonotary’s office, the courts, the sheriff’s office…the local police departments,” Bruno said. “Whenever everyone is working together on the same team, it makes the process a lot smoother for the victim.”
Other bills in the package would provide that law enforcement accompany a victim when a PFA is being served.
Changes to Sharon Police Protocols to Protect Victims and Officers
At the beginning of the year, the Sharon Police Department decided it was time to update its domestic violence and PFA service protocols.
“It’s not hard to get a Protection From Abuse order in Pennsylvania but there is certain criteria you have to meet, and a lot of the criteria people don’t meet is that you have to have a former intimacy between the two partners. They had to have lived together or have to be biologically related in some type of family unit,” Chief Gerald Smith said.
It’s called the lethality assessment program. The goal of which is to prevent domestic violence homicides, serious injury, and reassault by encouraging more victims to utilize the support and shelter services of domestic violence programs.
It all starts the second an officer responds to a call.
“It’s a questionnaire response sheet and if there are so many positive responses to the different questions, then that triggers a call to emergency hotline, and it’s the officer that’s making the call to the hotline for the victim,” Bruno said. “Then one of our emergency response advocates will provide situational response — whether the victim needs emergency shelter or an emergency PFA. We meet them where they’re at.”
Each year, the Sharon Police Department responds to about 28,000 calls. Just this year alone, close to half of them have been for domestic violence.
When Chief Smith started updating his department policies, he — along with several departments across Mercer County — worked closely with AWARE.
“We will actually assist people, even after hours, to get a protection from abuse order if they meet one of these criteria,” he said. “AWARE actually has people on call that we can call and they’ll actually help transport that person to the district court.”
He said the key point of the PFA is that it allows officers to make an arrest without a warrant, which he said is “extremely helpful.”
“If there’s an active protection order and you violate that order, I don’t need to get a judge out of bed to get a warrant. You’re just gonna get arrested.”
From there, advocates with AWARE will guide victims through the protection order process.
“We go introduce ourselves and explain right off the bat that we are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice. We’re just here on a support and guidance capacity, then help them through the petition and guide them every step of the way,” Bruno said.
To find out more about the different types of domestic violence and how to protect yourself, visit the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website. It lists numerous resources for people who are being abused, both in Pennsylvania and anywhere in the country.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call AWARE’s 24/7 hotline at 888-981-1457 for help.