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Pittsburgh Public Safety director Huss works to lift morale

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:35 a.m.

The afternoon before a holiday weekend, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss hit the pool.

Police officers, firefighters and paramedics joined him as they continued the water rescue training he started in response to a deadly flood on Washington Boulevard in Highland Park in August 2011.

A federal investigation that stretched from the police department to the mayor's inner circle has pummeled police morale, Huss acknowledged, but he said he's trying to keep public safety workers focused.

“I'm trying to lead by example,” Huss said. “We will get through this. It's a black eye for the entire city, what's happened, but we can't let that get in the way. Our work is too important.”

Federal investigators carried boxes of documents from police headquarters in the North Side in February, about a week before Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced then-police Chief Nate Harper to resign on Feb. 20. Ravenstahl, who appointed Regina McDonald as acting chief, to the police union's dismay, announced March 1 that he would not seek re-election.

That month, a grand jury indicted Harper on charges he misappropriated more than $70,000 in public money funneled from payments for police secondary employment details into secret credit union accounts, and failed to file four years' worth of tax returns.

“Do I think morale is undermining everything? No, there are officers acting professional every day,” Huss said. “The issues involving the chief adversely affected morale.”

Ravenstahl's two police bodyguards and personal secretary appeared before the federal grand jury on May 8, and the mayor's attorney confirmed that a contractor who performed work on Ravenstahl's Fineview home gave the FBI documents.

Huss referred questions about the mayor's work schedule to Ravenstahl, who could not be reached.

Mayoral candidates jockeying for position during the Democratic primary said what happened in the police bureau would cause them to clean house there and in other city departments. Huss' wife, Joanna Doven, resigned as Ravenstahl's press secretary last week.

City Councilman Bill Peduto, the victor in the primary and heavy favorite to win in November, has been sharply critical of Huss, putting his future in question.

In April, Peduto questioned Huss' decision to nix a plan to pair on-duty and off-duty police officers on nighttime patrols of South Side hotspots. Huss later reversed his decision.

“I told everybody in public safety to keep your eye on the ball and stay focused on work,” Huss said. “We can't get distracted by other things going on.”

The investigation led to changes in the police department. Huss is moving the Special Events Office, which oversee secondary employment, from headquarters to Ross Street. He plans to staff the office with civilians and change the way payments are handled. It should be fully operational by July 1, he said.

Changes are in the works for the police Office of Personnel and Finance, he said, but declined to elaborate.

“I think the things we're doing to Special Events goes a long way,” Huss said. “I'm constantly looking at what reforms we can make with police. There are reforms that need to happen.”

Officers have complained the investigation damaged the department's reputation. This year, 26 officers retired or resigned, according to the police pension office. Thirty-six retired or resigned in 2012, records show.

“What we have to be concerned of is morale of the whole group,” Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said. “We can't forget that the actions of a few have impacted the reputation of the bureau. It's not a reflection of the dedicated people who, every day, keep performing and doing their duty.”

Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 President Michael LaPorte said the union has filed at least 17 grievances on behalf of its members in recent months. He said officers are feeling anxious because of the uncertainty surrounding the department.

“The No. 1 complaint is, the black eye the bureau is wearing didn't come from the rank and file,” said LaPorte, a sergeant. “It came from management. And yet, we're paying penance for their sins. ... As long as we're in flux, it's going to be hard to bring morale up.”

Huss visited with officers in the Zone 5 station in Highland Park during roll call and rode with them on patrol following officer-involved shootings in the zone in March and April.

“I try to speak with them and let them know we're thinking about them and support them,” Huss said of officers assigned to the zone. “They have a difficult job to do.”

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

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