Mayor, residents praise police chief nominee as innovator, communicator

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Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's pick for Pittsburgh police chief was lauded yesterday as an innovator, a communicator and a welcome shot of diversity for city government.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Nate Harper attends yesterday's news conference announcing his nomination as Pittsburgh's new police chief.
Click photo for larger image.
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Formally introduced at a news conference and flanked by neighborhood advocates, nominee Nathan E. Harper said his top priorities are to "network between the faith-based organizations in the neighborhoods" and establish block watches in every city area to build a community crime-fighting system.

"I believe I have selected a man who knows Pittsburgh, its neighborhoods and its people," the mayor said.

Currently assistant chief in charge of the investigations branch, Mr. Harper would be the first African American to lead the bureau since Earl Buford left the top post in 1995, should City Council confirm him.

"I think it's a wonderful choice," said M. Gayle Moss, head of the Pittsburgh NAACP. "I hope that with the support he's going to get from the community at large he will be able to turn things around" in crime-plagued neighborhoods.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Ravenstahl spoke about getting politics out of the bureau, in the wake of recent accusations that city Operations Director Dennis Regan, now on paid leave and under Law Department investigation, quashed discipline against two officers.

"His decisions will not be based on politics," the mayor said. "His decision will be based on what's right."

City Council must confirm the chief, but it doesn't look like Mr. Harper will be a tough sell. Reviews from inside and outside of government were positive today, and the administration indicated that the nominee's past tax problems are over.

Council Public Safety Chairman Len Bodack called him "a quality individual. He came up through the ranks. He knows the streets. He knows the operations."

Mr. Bodack recounted going to Mr. Harper in 2004 when he was having a problem with over-aggressive tow-truck operators. "He laid down a couple of rules for the tow-truck operators to follow," the councilman said, and made sure they were followed. "He's the kind of guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets the job done."

Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle said Mr. Harper has been in the troubled communities in the city's northeast corner on weekends, meeting with ministers to pinpoint crime hot spots. "There were days when he was off, dressed in his blue jeans and sweat shirt, coming into my community" to plan crime-fighting efforts, she said.

Mr. Bodack also praised the choice of Paul Donaldson, currently acting chief, as Mr. Harper's deputy. "I think those two gentlemen will complement each other," he said.

If confirmed, Mr. Harper will be the third chief in 10 months. Robert W. McNeilly Jr. was fired by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who named Dominic J. Costa. Mr. Costa resigned last month due to pain from a 2002 bullet wound.

Mr. McNeilly, now chief of the Elizabeth Township police, said he worked with Mr. Harper when the nominee was a sergeant in the traffic division and later had him promoted to assistant chief. When Mr. Harper sought to build an elite, uniformed Street Response Unit to fight violence and drugs, Chief McNeilly backed him. "He put together a pretty good squad," Chief McNeilly said.

Mr. Harper may help heal rifts in the bureau management, the ex-chief said. "Nate's got good people skills. He can draw back in the management, with the rank-and-file, and build some cohesion."

Elizabeth C. Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said the appointments would herald "a new day in community-police relations ... They've both demonstrated great respect for the community."

Mr. Donaldson was called before the review board, which hears complaints against police, in relation to a 1999 incident in which he led the breakup of a protest by the African-American Workers Union at the PNC Park construction site, said Ms. Pittinger. The board recommended a three-day suspension for a minor procedural mistake, and then-Chief McNeilly cleared Mr. Donaldson of any wrongdoing, she said.

She said Mr. Harper has never been called before the board, which is nearly 10 years old. He and Mr. Donaldson have been very cooperative in explaining police procedures to the board, she said.

Mr. Harper has not had a clean record with the tax man.

The city and Allegheny County have filed liens against Mr. Harper's Stanton Heights home for late property tax and sewage bill payment 11 times since 1996. The late-paid bills total $5,521, including late fees, and he has generally paid them off shortly after the filing of delinquent tax actions.

For this year, government Web sites show him owing $394 in overdue county property taxes, penalties and fees, and $2,274 to the city and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Mr. Harper said the late taxes were a family oversight.

Mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar said the taxes have been paid, and those Web sites are outdated. "He doesn't owe anyone any taxes," he said. "It's not an issue."

Mr. Harper, 53, joined the bureau in 1977. Mr. Donaldson, 55, started a year earlier, and they live a few blocks apart in Stanton Heights. The chief is paid $92,285, and his deputy makes $87,174.

Former Deputy Chief Earl Woodyard's status will be determined by Mr. Harper, the mayor said. The nominee for chief "has free reins to make the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police once again one of the most respected in the country," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Mr. Harper said he would decide Deputy Chief Woodyard's role "in a few days."

The NAACP's Ms. Moss said seeing a black face in a top city position is refreshing. "That's really the big plus, the diversity, and this is just a start."

She said Mr. Ravenstahl, who took office Sept. 1 after Mr. O'Connor's death, met with the NAACP this week to discuss a host of concerns. She called it "the beginning of a relationship ... Luke certainly came in with a bang."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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