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 [email protected].