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Criticism resurfaces for acting police chief in Pittsburgh

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Regina McDonald talks to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in her office at Pittsburgh Police Bureau headquarters during her first day on the job as the city's acting police chief on Thursday, February 21, 2013. McDonald will take over the position from former Chief Nate Harper after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked for Harper's resignation amid an ongoing FBI investigation. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Acting Pittburgh police Chief Regina McDonald

Regina McDonald's appointment to at least temporarily lead the scandal-ridden Pittsburgh police bureau surprised many officers.

Former supervisors insist she's up to the challenge, though.

“When she has something to say, she'll say it,” said Elizabeth Township police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., an 30-year veteran of Pittsburgh police who led the city department from 1996 to 2006. “She listens a lot, which is good for a manager. She can be forceful when she needs to.”

McDonald, 63, of Sheraden shuns the limelight, even as a federal investigation of police spending in administrative offices she once supervised instensifies the glare.

During her first full day as acting chief on Feb. 21, she opted to conduct a series of one-on-one interviews with reporters rather than be “bombarded” with questions, as she put it. She declined an interview for this story.

She began making headlines almost immediately, suspending at least three employees connected to ousted Chief Nate Harper and returning the Personnel and Finance Office — one of those targeted by FBI searches — to supervision by the administrative branch. She began reviewing staff positions that reported directly to Harper and last week got rid of a small, controversial unit Harper created and staffed with officers close to him.

“It's not good business practice for the chief of police to be supervising more people than what they normally would,” McNeilly said, echoing McDonald's explanation.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl named McDonald acting chief when he forced Harper out because of the federal investigation. How long she will serve in the role remains unclear. When asked why Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson didn't take over for Harper, the mayor noted the second-in-command was going on vacation. Donaldson has since returned.

Ravenstahl said he would look outside the department for a replacement.

Old criticisms of McDonald among rank and file resurfaced when she made chief. She never made an arrest, she dates a felon and former Mayor Tom Murphy helped her rise through the ranks, they said.

“They accused me of that when I was promoted to commander and then assistant chief,” McDonald said in an earlier interview. “One rumor was my dad was good friends with him. My dad didn't even know him. The other was that I'm related to him, but I'm not.”

She said she made numerous arrests after joining the force in 1977 and working a patrol wagon in Hazelwood.

“I received commendations when they weren't even giving commendations because of the arrests,” McDonald said. “Everybody knew when I was working because they knew I was patrolling. I wasn't hiding anywhere.”

Officers privately questioned McDonald's 28-year romantic relationship with Max Homer, 77, of Robinson, who was convicted of extortion and false declaration to a grand jury in 1975. McDonald said she met Homer, a former state representative, later, when he was working in the city school district.

“He was able to get a job with Pittsburgh Public Schools, so why would I be concerned with whether or not he's a person to be involved with?” McDonald said.

McDonald was a teacher with a master's degree in education when she became a cop. She got a master's in administration of justice from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984.

Most of her career reflects an emphasis on education. She implemented the anti-drug DARE program in Pittsburgh Public Schools and oversaw the youth and community programs. McNeilly put her in charge of the training academy in 1998.

“I saw someone with two masters, and I thought she'd be perfect for the training academy,” McNeilly said. “She was educated, organized. She handled the job very well.”

He later put McDonald in charge of the narcotics and vice unit while rotating commanders, and promoted her to assistant chief of investigations.

“As a supervisor, she did a good job I thought in both narcotics and as assistant chief,” said Allegheny County Sheriff William P. Mullen, who oversaw McDonald as assistant chief and then as deputy chief. “There's always complaints and grumbling, but for the most part, what she did was positive.”

Since April 2006, McDonald headed the administration branch.

When Chief Dominic J. Costa retired in 2006, McDonald was one of five people interviewed for his position. She said this time she's not thinking about extending her time in the chief's office.

“I'm not looking at that right now,” McDonald said. “There's enough.”

Mullen said he thought McDonald was capable of the job. He and McNeilly cautioned against only looking outside the department for a new leader.

“If you bring someone in from the outside, he better have intentions of staying,” Mullen said, “because this, in my opinion, it's going to take years to straighten out.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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