Pittsburgh officials keeping search for police chief under wraps

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Just as quietly as police brass have begun making changes at headquarters, city officials have begun their search for a new chief to head the bureau at the center of a federal investigation.

Few details have been released about the search for someone to succeed former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper, who resigned under pressure last week after the mayor met with federal authorities.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and public safety director Mike Huss have said only that they prefer an outside candidate, they have "no plans" to hire an outside search firm and they plan to consult the police union.

Groups that conduct searches for police chiefs say the process, when done thoroughly, can take months and can be especially tricky for a bureau under intense scrutiny.

Searching for a new chief is often difficult and "it doesn't help" when the department is surrounded in controversy, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which conducted the search that resulted in the selection of Robert W. McNeilly Jr. as Pittsburgh police chief in 1996.

"If your department is facing some kind of investigation or integrity issues, the person who you hire has to be someone who's got an excellent reputation," Mr. Wexler said. "It's not enough just to be a good police chief or a good police officer, you need to be a respected leader, you need to be able to be transparent with the department."

Mr. Wexler, whose organization has also conducted police chief searches in Los Angeles, Boston and other major cities, said a typical search can take three to five months. Typically when his group is hired, its members meet with a local leader, in Pittsburgh's case the mayor, to discuss priorities for candidates.

They try to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the department, advertise a position, sort through resumes from candidates, then coordinate travel arrangements so candidates can come in for a first -- and sometimes second -- round of interviews.

Some groups, such as the International City/County Management Association, occasionally suggest that candidates go through "assessment centers" in which they role-play. A candidate applying to a department with a public relations problem, for example, might act out a scenario in which he answers tough questions from the public.

The exact number of cities that tend to use search firms is unclear.

"Most cities will do it themselves," Mr. Wexler said, while the ones with multi-million dollar budgets or a high likelihood of facing litigation will tend to hire outside firms.

When Chief McNeilly, who now heads the Elizabeth Township Police Department, won the job, he competed against a pool of candidates that included five other high-ranking Pittsburgh police officers and five from other departments identified by the Police Executive Research Forum.

When Mayor Bob O'Connor fired Chief McNeilly effective at the beginning of 2006, saying he wanted change, he replaced him with former Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Dominic J. Costa, who resigned later that same year and was eventually replaced by Mr. Harper.

"I'm frequently asked, 'Well, is it better to stay inside or go outside,' " Mr. Wexler said. "The right answer to that is really a function of what the department is looking for."

City Councilman Ricky Burgess has scheduled a public hearing and a post-agenda session to hear from community members on what qualities they would like to see in the next police chief and what they think the chief's administrative priorities should be. He said he hopes the mayor takes the community's views into consideration.

He also hopes the city conducts a national search to find a chief whose experience, skills and track record aligns closely with what the community desires. He said he would not vote for anyone currently employed or retired from the bureau.

Community groups that gathered in the City-County Building, Downtown, earlier this week said they want a new chief who focuses on improving police-community relations, reducing abuse allegations and increasing minority hiring.

Already, acting police Chief Regina McDonald has begun making changes within the bureau.

Last week, Chief McDonald moved the bureau's personnel and finance office, which she described as the target of the federal investigation, out from under the chief's direct control and ordered it to report to the assistant chief of administration, saying she felt "no unit should report directly to the chief or deputy chief" because "it protects the chain of command."

On Thursday, Chief McDonald said through bureau spokeswoman Diane Richard that she had asked the assistant chiefs to review some positions that had reported directly to the chief and send her recommendations for how they should be handled in the future.

Seventeen sworn officers reported directly to Mr. Harper in 2011, the most recent year for which an annual report is available.

Chief McDonald has assigned oversight of the Community Technical Investigative and Preparedness Section, known as C-TIPS, to George Trosky, assistant chief of investigations. The unit, whose mission mystified many of the rank-and-file, has worked with the FBI, Allegheny County sheriff's office and other organizations. Its members have worked on a variety of projects, ranging from drug arrests to efforts to enforce safety at youth football games.

Ms. Richard said Chief Trosky did not yet want to comment on the unit's future because "he has not had an opportunity to fully research and understand the purpose of the unit."

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Moriah Balingit contributed. Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM


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