Proposed bill would prohibit charging domestic violence victims for calling 911

The bill sparked a debate among law enforcement
Proposed bill would prohibit charging domestic violence victims for calling 911
Posted at 7:57 AM, Apr 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-26 07:57:51-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A proposed bill would prevent local governments and law enforcement agencies in Ohio from requiring reimbursement for the cost of emergency response for a sexual or domestic violence victim or the property owner of the home where the crime was committed.

Nuisance ordinances are fines sent to homeowners or individuals that call the police a multitude of times. These are typically given to people who have alarm systems that chronically beep and force the police to respond multiple times. Another reason could be someone suffering from extreme mental illness that calls constantly.

However, the same thing is happening when a victim of a crime has to call multiple times to report abuse. Domestic violence calls to 911 have been increasing, with 40 calls on just April 19, the Cleveland Police Department reported.

After police for a municipality leave a scene, some victims are finding out they owe hundreds of dollars to the city.

"Charging people for the services certainly discourages them from making that call," Dan Flannery, the director for Case Western Reserve University's Begun Center for Violence Prevention, said.

On the other hand, Sgt. Betsy Smith with the National Police Association, a conservative-leaning non-profit, said survivors can't use 911 as a referee to oversee fights.

"Domestic violence victims also have a responsibility to help take care of themselves," Smith said. "I, the police officer, can't keep coming and saying, 'here's all these resources.'"

Rep. Lisa Sobecki, a Democrat from Toledo, said she wants this debate to end.

"No victim of domestic or intimate partner violence should have to pay for the cost of a 911 call when they need law enforcement assistance," she said. "This bill is straight forwards, commonsense and a simple step we can take to help victims."

The nuisance ordinances, like red-light cameras, are good moneymakers for cities and counties, Steve Albrecht, former police officer specializing in domestic violence, said. But the police, in both cases, aren't the ones who profit or send out the charges.

"I don't like it when anybody who is a crime victim, especially domestic violence or stalking, feels compelled not to call the police because they don't want to get charged a fee," he said. "Are we trying to protect victims? Are we trying to punish people for calling the police too much?"

Numerous officers across the state don't want there to be a fine. Sgt. Betsy Smith, however, said that some officers do find these ordinances necessary.

"If you're a domestic violence victim and you keep calling 911, the police keep showing up and you refuse to press charges and I don't see anything, this is a problem," she said. "You keep utilizing police resources just to break up your fight."

Law enforcement wants to solve problems, she said.

"If you keep calling 911 and no problem is getting solved, then we're going to start issuing you citations, trying to assess fines against you — and again, that's not law enforcement involved," she said. "So I want people to understand that if you're not liking how this is going, this is why you elect new officials."

Smith isn't calling crime victims a nuisance, but she is calling it an issue when those individuals don't press charges.

"The intention of this is to spur those victims into taking some responsibility for what's happening and these jurisdictions where this is occurring," she said.

Encouraging people to stop calling and to actually press charges is a whole other conversation, Flannery said.

"It's an added stress and a burden that's unnecessary and gets us into a place with other kinds of calls that may be considered a nuisance," he said. "If someone is a repeat overdose victim, do we stop responding to those incidents after a certain number of calls because of the attitude that this has just become a public nuisance and not a 'medical emergency?'"

There is a community responsibility to be available for emergencies, he added.

Smith suggested resources like counseling and other social services. She just wished that people would press charges immediately.

"I think the elected officials can be shortsighted about this issue because they see it as a revenue generator, but they don't look at the ripple effect," Albrecht said.

To end that ripple effect, Ohio needs to close the loophole, Flannery said. That doesn't mean not going to certain addresses because they statistically aren't ever "true emergencies," he added.

"I think the bigger issue is making sure that we provide response and support services to those who need it than to try to start making rather subjective judgment calls about which call is important to respond to and which one isn't," he said.

Although the bill is filed and should have a number Tuesday, it is in the very early stages. The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio said it would be very interested in looking into the legislation once they learn more about it.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.