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Residents, search panel refine profile of Pittsburgh police chief

| Thursday, July 24, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Instead of trying to remember the hundreds of comments and questions from dozens of residents about Pittsburgh's monthlong search for a police chief, officials took a more meticulous approach. They passed out surveys, recorded comments and encouraged competing voices to agree on what was most important.

“What would be unhelpful would be a town hall open meeting where everybody can complain,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, a member of the 10-person police chief search committee. “This gathers people in small groups to discuss particular questions that are important. They do this with great earnestness.”

The last of six public meetings to ask questions and offer opinions about the search was held on Thursday in Our Lady Queen of Peace Church on Middle Street in the North Side.

Jerry Green, 69, of the North Side said he attended because the police chief is one of the positions with the most impact on the city.

“You want a police force that works for you and that you feel comfortable with, that it's not an adversarial relationship,” Green said.

Robert Cavalier, director of the program for deliberative democracy at Carnegie Mellon University, said an average of 50 people attended the meetings.

“We've prepared a description of the kind of things we want people to think about and talk about with regard to the selection process criteria,” Cavalier said.

With help from a moderator, participants split into groups to develop one question per table, which they posed to the search committee tasked with using public input to recommend the top prospects for Mayor Bill Peduto and acting Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar.

Jessica Pachuta, 29, of Friendship encouraged teens to attend the meetings through the Hear Me project. The group submitted audio interviews with 100 young people about their experiences with police to the mayor's office.

“It's going to, hopefully, be enlightening for our leaders to hear from young people on what they need from the law enforcement system,” Pachuta said.

Conversations around the tables included concerns about racial profiling, favoritism in the department, the benefits of a candidate from outside the city versus from within the department, and the way officers interact with youth.

“They want to know what kind of disciplinarian he is. I want to make sure he or she doesn't fall victim to the political realm here,” said committee member Richard Garland, an ex-gang member and anti-violence group founder who is an instructor at Pitt's Center for Health Equity.

Former police Chief Nate Harper resigned last year amid a corruption investigation. He is serving an 18-month prison sentence for establishing a police slush fund he tapped for personal use and for failing to file tax returns.

Peduto has said he wants to hire a police chief by Labor Day. The application period is set to expire July 31, but Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said the mayor could extend it.

“He has to be above reproach,” said Garland, who attended several of the meetings. “I want him to be his own man.”

At the end of each meeting, participants completed a survey that organizers will use to record what's important to residents in each police zone, Cavalier said. That, in combination with the responses to questions posed online, will give committee members a sense of what city residents want in a candidate.

“Many of these questions, the answers start, at least, in an application,” Harris said. “You would look at their track record on the various issues. On the community policing one, if you want somebody with great interest in that, you want to look for people who come from departments where community policing is a high priority or philosophy.”

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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