Open, accountable bureau can regain trust, experts say
Pittsburgh's Police Bureau can recover from the indictment of former Chief Nate Harper by being accountable and acting openly, leaders and law enforcement officers said on Friday.
Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and worked closely with Harper, said his indictment on charges of diverting public money for personal use and failing to file income tax returns disappointed her.
She has introduced legislation to prevent the department from shifting its Special Events Office money to unauthorized accounts at the police credit union, as prosecutors alleged. The grand jury said Harper tapped the private accounts for cash and personal purchases.
“I'm confident in the legal system, and I want to use it as a learning experience to move the city forward in a more transparent direction,” Kail-Smith said.
Public Safety Director Mike Huss is working with Kail-Smith to change the way all departments handle fees for hiring off-duty workers, which totaled about $2.3 million between 2010 and 2012.
“Part of the problem is that a lot of stuff went undetected, became hidden, and it shouldn't be that way,” Huss said.
Charges against someone who was until recently Pittsburgh's top law enforcement official can hurt the city's image and shake public confidence, but they inform rank-and-file officers about accountability, said R. Paul McCauley, professor emeritus of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“It sends a message that it doesn't matter who you are — top or bottom — if you get caught,” McCauley said. “The law is not blind.”
Acting Chief Regina McDonald issued a statement saying the department is “saddened.” She reassured residents that “our officers and civilian personnel are dedicated, hardworking professionals who will continue to protect and serve the City of Pittsburgh to the best of our ability.”
“It's hard for me to talk about him,” said Assistant Chief of Investigations George Trosky, a close friend of the former chief's. “He's a great guy. I feel bad for him. I hope he gets on with his life.”
Trosky said he speaks with Harper nearly every day.
“He's as good as can be expected,” Trosky said. “He's hanging in there. It's almost over now.”
Officer Robert Swartzwelder, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Management Committee, questioned how Harper was able to divert money collected from officers' off-duty jobs without anybody's noticing. The office handling secondary employment was instituted in 2007, a year after Harper became chief.
“It almost started as soon as the office opened,” Swartzwelder said. “How did you not know or realize these monies were being moved? This accounting system was just ridiculous.”
Accountability starts at the top, said Elizabeth Township police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who was Pittsburgh's chief for a decade until 2006 and changed secondary employment policies.
“Anybody who is the chief should realize the large amount of attention that's paid to how you conduct business and handle yourself,” McNeilly said. “You have to be extremely cautious and do everything right.”
Members of City Council said they worry about Pittsburgh's image.
Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze, who has known Harper and his family for decades, said the indictment stunned him.
“My thoughts and prayers go out to (Harper's) family,” Burgess said.
Councilman Corey O'Connor said the indictment reflects badly on the city at a time when it is making headlines as a good place to live.
“When the FBI comes to town and they are cleaning out offices, they are looking for something,” he said. “We need to fix the problem.”
Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said he had hoped rumors about Harper's involvement in alleged wrongdoing were wrong.
“The idea of a chief of police being arrested and handcuffed and going to jail is a troubling one, especially when it's one you know and have affection for,” Stevens said.
Charges levied against the chief mostly hurt officers doing good work, said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“This is like a year's worth of good stuff, or two, erased from everybody's memory,” O'Donnell said.
The department needs to engage people and invite more oversight, said Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law & Police Science at John Jay.
“Accountability is always the key,” Haberfeld said. “The less secretive the organization, the bigger the confidence of the community.”
Staff writers Bob Bauder, Margaret Harding and Carl Prine contributed to this report. Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Add Andrew Conte to your Google+ circles.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Storm could drop 4-6 inches of snow on Pittsburgh area
- Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh doubles goal with $230M pledged in largest fundraiser
- Project to End Human Trafficking volunteers help Uganda
- Grandview development plan inches ahead in Mt. Washington
- Mt. Lebanon High School to sell its planetarium equipment
- Long-term solution for wastewater disposal eludes shale gas industry
- Newsmaker: John O’Brien
- Man arrested in massive Homestead fire
- Port Authority debuts new design for public transport signage
- Lure of tuition aid, gifts draw college students to ‘sugar daddy’ sites
- Warrants issued in fatal McKeesport shooting