Special Pittsburgh police unit's effectiveness questioned

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A special unit that former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper established six years ago has an uncertain future amid questions about its effectiveness.

Acting Chief Regina McDonald said she doesn't want units answering only to the chief — as the Community Technical Investigative and Preparedness Section, or C-TIPS, has since its creation. Many of its members have ties to Harper. They work with the FBI, which is investigating the police bureau.

City and union officials wonder what the unit does.

“We would have to look at the work they're producing and see if it's justifiable,” said Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “We'd have to see a cost analysis. We don't know what they do.”

The seven members listed on the unit's roster include one of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguards. The unit cost taxpayers nearly $562,000 in salaries and overtime in 2012. Municipal Court records show the number of cases listing one of its members as the arresting officer dropped from 92 in 2007 to two last year.

“The chief is too busy to be burdened with the day-to-day operations of a squad,” said McDonald, who took the bureau's helm last week when Ravenstahl ousted Harper. McDonald would not discuss the unit's arrest numbers.

Police spokeswoman Diane Richard said the squad was involved in 130 arrests in 2011 and 2012, but declined to say how many arrests each officer made. Forty-six of the arrests were part of a drug investigation in the North Side conducted by the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Allegheny County sheriff's deputies and city police, she said.

City Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood, chair of council's public safety committee, said on Wednesday she quizzed Harper a year ago about the squad.

Harper assured her the group was critical to police investigations, particularly drug cases, and staffed with qualified officers, she said. He told her complaints about playing favorites and low productivity came from officers who resented they weren't assigned to the detail. Harper could not be reached.

“I had no reason not to believe what he was telling me,” Kail-Smith said. “I had no way to prove anything otherwise.”

The program's charter makes clear that C-TIPS would operate differently from most other units. C-TIPS “will be assigned to the chief's office, and will be utilized at the discretion of the chief of police,” says its mission statement.

Ravenstahl forced Harper to resign because of an FBI investigation of police spending and other matters.

Before he resigned, Harper told the Tribune-Review in emailed answers to questions that he chose C-TIPS officers based on experience. He said many of their cases were drug-related.

Steve Bartholomew, an ATF spokesman, said C-TIPS played a role in a 2011 investigation that resulted in drug arrests in the North Side.

“We value our relationship with the department. It has been very productive over the past years, as indicated by that investigation and many others,” he said.

In 2011, 17 sworn personnel reported directly to Harper, including youth programs such as DARE, and the bomb squad, according to the bureau's annual report.

Among them were C-TIPS detectives Dale Ford Jr., Willie Jeffries, Jerry Kabala, Robert Pires, Brenda Tate and Robert L. White Jr. and Sgt. Matthew Gauntner, a Ravenstahl bodyguard.

Police officials would not make the members available for interviews. The officers did not respond to emails.

Many have ties to Harper's early days with the department. He joined the bureau in 1977.

“They were people Nate knew he could trust,” said Tony Hildebrand, a former city police detective who worked at the department from 1979 to 2005, including a stint in the narcotics division when Harper was a sergeant. The city 10 years ago paid $250,000 to settle a lawsuit Hildebrand and his partner filed over an improper demotion.

Pires and Tate worked with Harper when he was their sergeant in the narcotics division. Jeffries was a plainclothes detective at the Zone 1 police station when Harper was the commander.

Ford, a former city Housing Authority officer, is the husband of Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford, one of three employees from police headquarters who McDonald suspended last week. Warner Macklin III, a spokesman for Montgomery-Ford, said she sporadically ate lunch with Harper and that her husband works with the FBI.

A business called D&T Enterprises, which lists its address at the Fords' New Homestead home, provided catering services and DARE program knapsacks to the city. Budget Office records show the city paid $9,640 to D&T in February and March 2011. Items purchased from D&T were shipped to Gauntner at headquarters, according to invoices.

Kail-Smith said she didn't know of anything that C-TIPS did in West End neighborhoods she represents. She said Harper told her members were responsible for wiretapping and assisting detectives with investigations.

She said she wants to find out what C-TIPS accomplished and weigh that against overtime costs before casting judgment.

“I think I would rather see officers in the streets, or in the zones, but we need to know what their role is and what their successes have been,” she said.

Council President Darlene Harris of Spring Hill said C-TIPS was partially responsible for helping to clean up drug problems in Brightwood and Brighton Heights.

“I don't know if they were all C-TIPS, but (Harper) would send them in and they were everywhere,” Harris said. “It was like they flushed the neighborhoods.”

Jay Gilmer, who heads the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime, said Tate helped the organization identify its target population and acted as a liaison between the group and the bureau. He said they meet every two weeks and “she's there most of the time.”

“Brenda has been our most steady police contact,” Gilmer said. “She's the ambassador from the police to us.”

Tate serves on boards of several neighborhood and anti-crime groups, including Hill House Association; Renewal Inc., a criminal rehabilitation center; and Urban Pathways Charter School.

“We reached out to the city police department a few years back and now we have a detective on our board,” said Doug Williams, CEO of Renewal. “It's been positive. She gives a perspective that other board members may not have about the individuals that we deal with and the reality of the streets.”

Staff writers Bob Bauder and Bobby Kerlik contributed to this report. Jeremy Boren and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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