Chief defends taking civilians off panels

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Background checks were not conducted on dozens of civilians selected to interview prospective Pittsburgh police officers, police Chief Nate Harper acknowledged Friday, as questions continued to mount about the city's efforts to involve community members in the hiring process.

The chief's comments came the same day residents and religious leaders demanded they be allowed to participate in the interview portion of the civil service exam, a plan city officials hoped would repair strained police-community relations and add diversity to the historically white department.

It fizzled on Tuesday with the discovery that a woman asking questions of police candidates was a convicted felon still wearing an electronic monitoring device on her ankle. The city's decision to limit hundreds of remaining interviews to members of law enforcement will remain "until we get our house in order," Chief Harper said.

"I assumed that background checks were done," he said. "It wasn't done. We didn't know who was there. ... This was a mistake that was made, and we should correct it."

Public Safety Director Michael Huss, who declined to comment on Friday, said earlier in the week that police checked the backgrounds of about 30 people who were to sit on the interview panels, which include one civilian and three officers.

Mr. Huss was unsure why Dianne Malrey, who pleaded guilty to a felony firearms charge last year, "slipped through the cracks."

But Chief Harper described the plan as haphazardly executed by civil service officials, who he said should have sent participants waivers weeks in advance so that the city's Office of Municipal Investigations, which checks the backgrounds of police recruits, could have examined their pasts. By the time the chief learned that had not happened, interviewers were already being trained for the job, he said. Their driver's licenses and resumes were sought on the day of the training, but little else.

The chief said he had misgivings about the plan after a Dec. 2 training session. But he allowed about 200 interviews to take place before officers noticed Ms. Malrey's ankle monitor on Tuesday, prompting Mr. Huss to oust community members.

"It's not a done deal, it's just that we have to get things in order before we can get this thing back on track," Chief Harper said.

The Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, which months ago urged Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to include civilians in the process, supplied the police bureau with names of those who were interested. The names were given to police Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford, who works out of the chief's office, to forward to civil service officials, who should have set and articulated criteria for community participation, Chief Harper said. Yet, details were not put into writing and meetings concerning the matter were scarce, he added.

"The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," he said. "We have to do better."

City officials have refused to make the names public. Officers giving the exam should be able to see them early on to spot potential problems, if the approach is tried again, the chief said.

The interviews follow a written portion of the civil service test, and both carry the same weight.

"This is a very important phase of hiring police officers," he said. "These are things we have to put into writing. We have to make sure we know what the rules are and are not making them up as we go along."

OMI director Kathy Kraus declined to comment. Judy Hill Finegan, director of the city's personal and civil service commission, also declined to comment, through mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven.

The chief spoke during an interview, hours after more than a dozen members of the clergy gathered outside Holy Innocents High School in Sheraden, where officers were conducting interviews, to demand their immediate reinstatement to the panels. They said the mayor broke his commitment when the city nixed their involvement, which they saw as a promising step toward adding minority recruits to a department that is more than 82 percent white.

Among the group was ACLU legal director Witold Walczak, who said the city could be "legally vulnerable" as a result of its decision to pull civilians from the panels while the interview process is ongoing. Officials said they will remove the civilian scores from the overall evaluations of the candidates who were interviewed in the first two days, but hundreds of applicants, some from out of town, have yet to be tested.

"You've got people who have gone through two different processes," he said. "Who knows what influence the fourth person had."

He questioned the city's motivation for reversing its decision.

"It took a lot of effort to get them to agree to do this," Mr. Walczak said. "It looks like a convenient excuse to cancel a worthwhile program that they didn't want to accept in the first place."


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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