Indicted former Pittsburgh police chief has supporters, detractors
Nate Harper didn't flinch much as a police officer for 36 years, friends say.
While riding a motorcycle escorting then-Vice President Dan Quayle's motorcade to the funeral of Sen. John Heinz in 1991, Harper spotted a Port Authority truck ahead with an open door as they rumbled down the East Busway to Oakland.
“The Secret Service got all nervous. The service truck door was open. That really shook them up,” said retired assistant chief Craig Edwards, who was riding in a nearby car with agents. “Nate spotted it, rode up to it, tipped the bike, kicked the door shut and kept going. The Secret Service was like, ‘Who the hell is that guy?'
“Nate never stopped. He was that good of a rider.”
Harper's rise through the Pittsburgh police ranks reached a pinnacle in 2006 — 29 years after he joined the force — when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl named him chief, succeeding Dom Costa. His downfall happened much more quickly.
Federal authorities on Friday charged Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights with five counts stemming from an indictment, about a month after Ravenstahl forced him to resign amid questions surrounding the federal investigation.
Authorities said he failed to file tax returns for four years on annual salaries ranging from $110,000 to $123,000, and misused public money, including more than $31,000 they say he used for personal purchases.
Harper declined to be interviewed.
The allegations shocked former colleagues when the investigation became public in a Tribune-Review report in January. His reputation was that of an honest father of three daughters who attends Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer.
“He's a family guy, big time,” Edwards said. “He used to bring his daughter and grandson around when he wasn't working.”
His wife, Cynthia Harper, 58, retired in 2004 after 21 years in the police bureau. Harper is known as a snappy dresser who always kept his uniform pressed.
Harper worked his way up from a K-9 officer, to motorcycle patrolman, plainclothes officer, sergeant, commander and then assistant chief. Rank-and-file officers said they respected Harper because of his extensive field experience.
“He never forgot what it was like to do the job. He realized if you were an active officer, you would have complaints against you,” said Officer Dan O'Hara, who was Fraternal Order of Police union president from 2008-12.
“He was big on retraining because he wanted to make a better department for the city. It wasn't a negative thing. He was genuinely concerned about getting people on the right track. Morale was definitely better under Harper than previous chiefs,” O'Hara said.
Yet, observers wonder if discipline became too lax compared with the strict rules of Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who departed in January 2006 after the tenure of Mayor Tom Murphy. McNeilly and his wife, Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, testified last week in a federal civil trial that centered on the discipline of a former detective who assaulted a motorist in 2010 on the Parkway East.
Jarret Fate, 32, of Squirrel Hill sued the city, Harper and Assistant Chief George Trosky claiming they violated his civil rights by keeping former Detective Bradley Walker on the force despite violent incidents in his past. A judge dismissed claims against Harper and Trosky.
Catherine McNeilly said Harper tended to reduce or dismiss disciplinary recommendations that she and other supervisors filed against officers, particularly for minor offenses.
“He was not the disciplinarian that chiefs in the past were,” she said.
O'Hara said Harper simply dealt with discipline differently.
“As to allegations that the FOP walked all over him, that's far from the case. He saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in arbitration by sitting down with us when we raised an issue,” O'Hara said.
Trosky, a longtime friend, declined to comment. Harper and Ravenstahl promoted Trosky from detective to commander to assistant chief, drawing claims of favoritism.
Circle of friends
Critics further complained that Harper put friends in plum assignments such as a special investigations office he created and dubbed C-TIPS, for Community Technical Investigative and Preparedness Section.
“I had concerns about people that he held in confidence. It's easy to say that now, reflecting back, but it sort of felt like he was getting influenced by people with their own agendas,” FOP President Mike LaPorte said.
Among the people at Harper's swearing-in ceremony in 2006 was Arthur Bedway, the head of Victory Security whom federal authorities charged last year with setting up a sham company to win a city police contract. He testified this year before the grand jury that investigated Harper.
Cynthia Harper once worked as a consultant with Kathleen Bowman, co-owner of Victory Security.
The Bedway indictment and news of the city Housing Authority terminating its contract with Victory caused some whispers about possible connections to Harper. Friends said Harper's reputation for keeping his word and doing what was necessary to get the job done deflected the rumors.
“He had no illusions of being a super-cop,” said retired Detective Barry Fox, 66, of South Park, who worked in the narcotics squad when Harper oversaw it.
“He knew that we weren't going to clean up the narcotics problem in the city overnight. It was more like: ‘What do you need to get the job done?' ” said Fox, who operates his own security firm.
Fox recalled when members of his squad worked on an internal investigation. Other members of the department, including higher-ups, pressured the investigators to find out what was going on.
“We were working in a tight situation, and we had internal scrutiny on us because people didn't know what we were doing,” Fox said. “People would have been happy to have us on a platter. Nate stood up for us. He got the heat off of us and he absorbed it, and he didn't have to.”
Harper's appointment as the first black chief in more than a decade brought excitement to black Pittsburghers, a constituency sometimes at odds with the department. Harper promised community outreach with faith-based and neighborhood groups.
Tim Stevens, head of the Black Political Empowerment Project and former president of the NAACP's Pittsburgh branch, said he advocated for Harper to become chief.
“He has always been approachable and willing to have a conversation, even if we don't always agree. He was always open to any time we wanted to have a community meeting,” Stevens said. “I think he had high respect in the black community.”
A low point in that relationship occurred with the arrest of a black honors student by three white officers ended with the teenager hospitalized. Jordan Miles of Homewood sued the officers over what he and supporters considered police brutality. A federal jury cleared the officers of malicious prosecution but deadlocked on two other claims.
Harper testified at trial, saying the officers didn't violate department policy and wouldn't be disciplined.
“There was some disappointment with (Harper's) testimony in the Jordan Miles case. Maybe he could have been more neutral,” Stevens said.
Harper shrugged off questions about race when he became chief.
Growing up in the Hill District, Harper watched his mother and other black women clean the homes of wealthy white people and vividly recalled running home on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, causing rioting in Pittsburgh's streets.
“My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and he always told me that you can't make a melody using only the black keys on the piano, just as you can't make one using only the white keys,” he said at the time. “Skin color doesn't matter. Doing the job right does.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.