South Side won't get off-duty Pittsburgh officers as security

Public safety chief rejects plan amid probe of payments

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More than a year ago, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office proposed using off-duty police officers working security details on the South Side to supplement on-duty patrol officers and improve public safety.

After struggling to reach agreement and raise money through the South Side Bar and Restaurant Association, community leaders, bar owners, police and neighborhood groups thought they finalized a plan Monday evening. A pilot program was to begin May 17 pairing 20 off-duty security officers with 10 on-duty officers to patrol the East Carson Street entertainment district and neighboring streets.

But on Wednesday, Pittsburgh public safety director Michael Huss rejected the plan because of the ongoing investigation into how the bureau has handled payments for off-duty security details, which are coordinated through the bureau.

"The priority now is to fix the secondary employment system and the detail office," Mr. Huss said. "I'm not going to allow an expansion of the program while we're trying to clean up this mess."

The organizations that arranged the expanded patrols found out Thursday they would not move forward at a meeting hosted by the Responsible Hospitality Institute. The institute was hired by the city to help reduce problems among residents and bar/restaurant owners and customers in the South Side, in particular, and across the city.

Acting police Chief Regina McDonald was scheduled to present the program to the meeting, but officials found out the program had been nixed and she left without speaking.

"We were told [Tuesday night] that public safety director Huss told acting Chief McDonald this program won't be implemented," Jim Peters, president of the hospitality institute, told the group.

After the meeting, he said the bar owners worked with neighborhood groups and police officials to formulate the plan. The bars and restaurants committed $250,000 to the program.

"The cost to the city wouldn't have been much different," Mr. Peters said. "I think it's the bars, the public and the neighborhoods that are going to be hurt by this."

Mike Papariella, owner of Casey's Draft House and president of the bar and restaurant association, said he was disappointed by the decision. He said the patrols would have addressed the biggest criticism bar owners get -- that security officers only stand at the bar door and don't do anything to help problems throughout the neighborhood.

"This would have benefited residents and led to a better, safer South Side for everybody," he said. "We would have had 30 uniformed police officers working the South Side streets."

Kevin McCarthy, an assistant district attorney who represented Mr. Zappala at the meeting, said prosecutors think it is important for off-duty police officers working as security officers to be part of a "coordinated effort" to patrol the neighborhood.

"We were looking forward to this," Mr. McCarthy said. "They would act as an impact squad that would work throughout the South Side."

Mr. Huss said that can't happen until problems with officers working private security details are solved.

A federal grand jury indicted former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper last month on one count of conspiracy to use public funds for personal use and four counts of failing to file federal income tax returns. Prosecutors said Mr. Harper and other unnamed individuals diverted more than $70,000 meant for the city of Pittsburgh to off-the-books accounts and tapped it with credit cards.

During the course of the investigation, federal authorities removed documents from the bureau's personnel and finance office and from the special events office, which coordinates officers' moonlighting.

It is not clear in what direction that investigation is heading, but U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton said at the time of Mr. Harper's indictment that the investigation remains ongoing.

"I don't have much bad to say about what they are proposing," Mr. Huss said. "But internally we need to get our act together before we allow any expansion of the detail program."

neigh_city - businessnews - dining

Liz Navratil contributed. Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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