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Accreditation bid for Pittsburgh police on hold

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:25 a.m.

A state accreditation commission halted its assessment of the Pittsburgh Police Department because of the federal investigation into the bureau's use of funds weeks before the department expected to win accreditation for the first time.

“We're going to table that report until we get a better understanding of the situation of the police department there,” said Joe Blackburn, accreditation and training coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. “We're just going to take it day-to-day and see.”

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald said through spokeswoman Diane Richard that she understands the concerns of the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced former Chief Nate Harper to resign Feb. 20, citing an FBI investigation into use of police funds. The FBI is investigating how money was diverted from the bureau's Special Events Office into a secret account at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union.

Public Safety Director Michael Huss said he was disappointed but understood the reasoning behind the commission's decision. He said the process has helped the bureau.

“It was always more about the process and getting there than the certificate on the wall,” Huss said. “The work and the preparation and the review is the real benefit.”

City code requires the police chief to attain and maintain accreditation, and a resolution council passed in 2010 urges the department to obtain accreditation from the state commission.

“It is a way of codifying their policies through an outside body's professional standards,” said Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze, who sponsored the resolution. “The best way to improve public safety is to increase community confidence in the police force.”

After years of trying, Pittsburgh police were near the end of the process. Assessors from the commission conducted on-site inspections, the final phase in accreditation, on Jan. 9 and 10, Blackburn said. They were supposed to prepare a report and present it to the commission for a vote on approval April 3, he said.

“We may come back to take a look at some new and revised policies when the time comes,” Blackburn said.

Said McDonald: “Revisions to policy are an ongoing effort.”

McDonald said Harper made accreditation a priority.

“The bureau will continue to function as we work toward ... accreditation,” Richard said. “Once accredited, you still work toward enhancing and improving the department. This is an ongoing process.”

The pursuit of accreditation began several chiefs ago when Robert W. McNeilly Jr. took the top job in 1996, before the state commission was formed. His work toward national accreditation was sidelined by a federal consent decree requiring reforms after a lawsuit charged police with abuse and misconduct.

“It was important to get in compliance of the consent decree first,” McNeilly said. “That was a massive undertaking.”

Accredited departments meet the state commission's 132 professional standards and mandates on police policies, such as evidence collection and special operations. Benefits include possible insurance discounts and reduced exposure to lawsuits, officers at accredited departments said.

“It's pretty hard to say an agency that's accredited fails to train, or fails to plan or have the policies in place to guide the officers,” said Capt. Mark Joyce of the Findlay police, which is accredited nationally by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and by the state commission.

“It provides that protection. If an attorney tries to initiate a lawsuit, you have a lot of defenses to it,” Joyce said.

Burgess said it makes sense for the commission to postpone accreditation, but he is confident it will get done.

“The important part is they already are in compliance,” Burgess said. “They are actually doing what the commission calls for. I think when the commission decides it's appropriate, we will get the accreditation.”

The state chief's association began its accreditation program in 2001, and since then 83 departments have become accredited, including the Allegheny County, Murrysville and Jackson Township police departments.

“We wanted to show that we were a fine-tuned department,” Allegheny County Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said. “I think the biggest benefit is a sense of pride it puts in your organization, and it's an accomplishment.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or

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