Harper fails Pittsburgh cops who serve valiantly

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Their memories have been done a great disservice.

An infamous anniversary is fast approaching, its arrival certain to rekindle deeply disturbing memories for far too many people. It occurs on April 4, which annually has been a somber date in Western Pennsylvania since 2009, when Paul J. Sciullo, Stephen J. Mayhle and Eric G. Kelly died in a hail of gunfire.

The three Pittsburgh police officers were killed in uniform, ambushed on a sunny Saturday morning in Stanton Heights by a punk named Richard Poplawski. He was mad at his mother, mad at the world and so made his life's defining moment one of execrable violence that paradoxically shattered a city even while uniting it in grief.

The murders illustrated with sucker-punch intensity the sacrifice that those on the front lines of law enforcement occasionally and randomly are forced to make. They provided irrefutable evidence of the profession's substantial risk as well as the inherent nobility that attracts people to it.

Among those lauding the fallen officers at their respective funerals was police Chief Nate Harper, who appears to have been entirely unworthy of the task. Harper had one hand in the public till even while saluting the trio with the other.

On Friday, a month after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced his resignation, Harper was indicted for failing to file tax returns and diverting public money for his own use. He allegedly redirected at least $70,628 from the administrative fee that private businesses pay to hire off-duty officers for security and used at least $31,986 for his own benefit.

Hours after the indictment, Harper's attorney announced he would plead guilty to the charges.

The illegal activity transpired between 2008 and last December. The diverted funds paid for, among other things, an XM car radio, a 32-inch LCD TV, an oven upgrade, ladder accessories and the tab at such bars and restaurants as Jerome Bettis Grille 36, Ruth's Chris Steak House, James Street Gastropub and NOLA on the Square.

Harper's indictment capped a week of bad publicity for the department that also included an embarrassing court proceeding. It was held to determine the city's potential liability for fired Detective Bradley Walker's assault of a Squirrel Hill man during a 2010 road rage incident.

The department is taking a brutal public relations beating, even though the vast majority of city officers do their job without incident. They honor their badge. That's ultimately what being an officer is all about, not the position's power or its trappings.

In tarnishing his badge, Harper has caused considerable doubt to be cast upon the entire department that Sciullo, Mayhle and Kelly were valiantly serving when they died. This crooked cop is, by far, the biggest reason why a department that the city rallied around in the wake of the murders is viewed by most of its residents with an extremely jaundiced eye.

Harper is pleading guilty to a variety of crimes, but that perhaps is his greatest misdeed.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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