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'Hometown kid' turned chief earns Carnegie's respect

| Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008

Carnegie police Chief Jeff Harbin has been shot at in the line of duty three times, including once while his wife was in the hospital after giving birth.

He held a partner who was shot during a 1986 drug raid and died a few days later in the hospital. During the 2004 flood, Harbin was stuck on a bridge for six hours as water rose around him and the people he was attempting to save.

And he faced tremendous ridicule in 1998 when he turned over evidence of what he thought was other officers' questionable use of force.

Getting shot at two months ago by a suspected robber fleeing police was not enough to send Harbin into retirement after 32 years with the Carnegie Police Department.

"When I tell the younger officers what it has been like, they sort of look in awe," he said.

It's a look of appreciation that's seen in many townspeople when they're asked about Harbin, 54.

"In this day and age, it's kind of rare for a community to love their police chief as much as we do," said Leigh White, Carnegie Community Development Corp.'s executive director.

Man about town

Carnegie isn't Mayberry, but the borough of about 8,000 might have its version of Andy Taylor.

If there's a community gathering, Harbin, who lives in North Fayette, will likely be there. On Monday of last week, he attended the Carnegie Borough Council meeting. On Tuesday, he sat with his back against the fire station's garage wall as the fire department held a town hall meeting. He regularly attends the Carnegie Arts & Heritage Festival planning meetings during the summer.

Looking for a supporter of the Carnegie Library and Music Hall• Library director Maggie Forbes will suggest talking to Harbin.

When the Carnegie Historical Society was searching for funds to buy a replica railroad watchtower, Harbin did a charity run.

When a group formed to purchase a memorial to Carnegie native and college basketball coach Skip Prosser after he died from a heart attack, Harbin volunteered for another charity run.

"I'd settle for consummate professional, but he gives so much more," Forbes said.

Hometown kid

Harbin grew up in a one-bedroom house in the Cubbage Hill neighborhood of Carnegie. His parents slept on a pullout couch, giving up the bedroom to him and his sister. His father was a steelworker.

Far from an accomplished student, Harbin left for Marine Corps boot camp four days after his Carlynton High School graduation in 1971. He was 17, so his parents signed a permission slip. He served a year in Saigon, Vietnam, and 2 1/2 more years in Luxembourg.

"The Marine Corps pointed me in the right direction," he said.

When he left the Marines after four years, he worked at a steel mill before joining the police force. He was promoted to sergeant in 1984 and named chief in 1992.

Harbin, who makes $73,954 a year, has had opportunities to leave the Carnegie department for more money, said his wife, LouAnn, but he's stayed because the community gave him an opportunity early on.

"I think I'm accepted more because my roots are here, growing up at the time that I did," he said.

Most difficult decision

Harbin's toughest moment came in 1998 after he "broke that blue wall of silence," as he put it. Evan Gross, a Butler County motorist, led police on a high-speed police chase that ended in Carnegie. A Carnegie police car's video equipment taped the arrest, in which state police punched Gross multiple times even as he kneeled on the ground with his hands in the air.

"I knew once I viewed the tape, my life was never going to be the same," he said.

He turned the tape over to investigators because he felt excessive force was used and because Gross was charged with aggravated assault although Harbin didn't see any resistance. A media firestorm ensued. A grand jury found the officers didn't use excessive force.

Harbin said he faced tremendous ridicule within law enforcement and word spread that his police force shouldn't expect backup when requested. Ten years later, Harbin said he still wouldn't hesitate to turn the tape in.

LouAnn Harbin said, "Oh, God" three times when asked about the Gross case. For her, the worst part was learning whom the Harbins could trust.

"He had to turn it in," she said. "There was no hesitation. That's him. That's how we raised our children; you do the right thing."

Harbin kept all the newspaper clippings and thank-you letters he received from across the country in a 214-page scrapbook. A man he arrested multiple times wrote him from prison.

"I have the utmost respect for you and your officers," he wrote.

That meant a lot to Harbin. So did the Ethical Courage Award he received from the Southwestern Law Enforcement Institute on Oct. 30, 1998. He feels it is his biggest accomplishment.

"It was quite an honor because I know it was given by law enforcement officers for doing the right thing," he said.

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