Report criticizes Pittsburgh police side-jobs policy

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When former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper helped organize a private security firm with his subordinates, he did so in a "largely unregulated" environment governed by a handful of outdated and "unclear" policies, according to a consultant's report released Friday.

The lack of clear, modern and coherent policies -- particularly as they pertain to police officers working simultaneously in the private security sector -- helped foster an atmosphere that allowed questionable business ventures to flourish at every level of the department, according to consultant Steven M. Toprani.

While Mr. Toprani did not allege that any of the businesses themselves were crooked, he cited the potential for trouble because of an inherent conflict of interest caused by officers owning private security businesses.

"Because certain off-duty officers own private security businesses, this category of employment poses a direct and significant threat to proper functioning of the [police] bureau and is the proper subject for reform," according to the 25-page report.

Mr. Toprani, the former Washington County district attorney, called on Pittsburgh to implement lucid policies that would limit the ability of police officers to be involved in private security and detective businesses.

Among his suggestions: requiring police officers to be approved for outside employment and barring officers from having a financial or ownership stake in a private detective business.

Mr. Toprani's report was made public nearly a year after it was announced that he would be hired to perform a top-to-bottom review of existing Pittsburgh police outside employment policies and best practices nationally. The city paid him $10,000.

"There was a gap in our policies when it came to outside employment," said city public safety director Michael Huss, who said he reviewed a draft of the report more than a month ago and received the final copy Friday.

Mr. Huss directed acting police Chief Regina McDonald last year to review a draft of Mr. Toprani's report, policies from other bureaus and applicable laws, then draft a new outside employment policy for the Pittsburgh police bureau.

Chief McDonald said through a spokeswoman that she expects her draft to be ready to submit to the public safety director within a month.

Kevin Acklin, incoming chief of staff for Mayor-elect Bill Peduto, said in an email that they had not received the report as of 1 p.m. Friday "but we will review [it] upon receipt and take any recommendations into consideration in connection with our plans to improve ethics in city hall and restore faith in local government."

The new outside employment policy, Chief McDonald said, will include a provision that requires officers to inform the city of their outside employment.

"At this time we do not know how many officers are involved in outside employment," she said via spokeswoman Diane Richard.

Mr. Toprani said Friday he did not have a specific number of officers involved in outside employment, particularly for companies dabbling in private security, investigations or consulting. He said citizens called him for several months after he was hired to pass along information about officers' companies and he referred them to the U.S. attorney's office or the Allegheny County district attorney's office.

He said those companies were neither "rampant" in the bureau nor were they examples of an "isolated incident."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl selected Mr. Toprani after reports last year by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that ex-police Chief Nate Harper created a private security consulting firm with his subordinates, and that Cmdr. Eric Holmes, while a sergeant, was also employed full time as the head of Slippery Rock University's police force with Mr. Harper's approval. The company in which Mr. Harper was involved, Diverse Public Safety Consultants, has since been dissolved.

When the role of Mr. Harper, Cmdr. Holmes and others in outside employment became public, it opened a Pandora's box of problems and concerns for the police bureau.

"Often these outside positions at a minimum blur the lines of demarcation between public duty and private pecuniary interest and may ultimately directly conflict with the city's legitimate business," according to the report.

"More startling," the report continued, "is the fact that this activity operated in a vacuum, with apparent marginal oversight from some supervisors and misguided encouragement from others. Compounding matters are the city's weak and vague policies."

Mr. Harper resigned amid a federal investigation in which he was ultimately charged. He pleaded guilty to four counts of not filing tax returns and one count of criminal conspiracy in connection with diverting more than $70,000 in municipal funds. He is awaiting sentencing.

Although federal prosecutors have not connected Mr. Harper's role in Diverse Public Safety Consultants to their criminal investigation into city affairs, the mayor said he was disappointed by Mr. Harper's involvement with the enterprise and by his doing business with subordinates.

Mr. Toprani took time to address what he saw as Mr. Harper's shortcomings as chief, writing that he "willfully concealed" his business relationship from the city and that he "callously disregarded his duties for financial gain and served as an example to his subordinates to do the same."

Attorneys for Mr. Harper Friday strongly disputed those allegations, saying their client joined the company while making plans for retirement but did not consult for or profit from it.

Attorney Robert Del Greco said the former chief "engaged in wrongdoing," quickly accepted responsibility and "ought not to be the scapegoat for deficiencies in the police department, for things that were not of his doing."

Cmdr. Holmes has been under investigation by the city's Office of Municipal Investigations for his work at Slippery Rock in 2007 and 2008.

OMI Director Kathy Kraus declined comment as did Cmdr. Holmes. His attorney, Patrick Thomassey, revealed Friday that Cmdr. Holmes' outside employment has been the subject of federal scrutiny as part of a yearlong probe of the police bureau and the dealings of Mr. Ravenstahl and his administration.

"I'm confident that Eric didn't do anything wrong whatsoever. We've turned over lots of records to the U.S. attorney and it's going to be up to them how to proceed," Mr. Thomassey said.

Mr. Toprani reviewed outside employment policies in other departments -- all of which seem more comprehensive and specific than the police bureau's short policy, which appears to be modeled on a model policy drafted in 1997.

"Boston," for instance, "has in essence placed a blanket prohibition on guard, security and private investigation activities," the report said.

Rather than dwell on specific instances of alleged misconduct by Pittsburgh police officers, Mr. Toprani's report took a broader approach and denounced the existing policy climate that made the situation conducive for both Mr. Harper's and Cmdr. Holmes' private ventures.

"Existing policies fail to properly address matters related to outside employment and in some instances, namely those of private security and investigation firm ownership, run afoul of state law," Mr. Toprani wrote.

Mr. Toprani recommended seven steps the city should take that would boost monitoring and supervision of officers' outside employment.

"The city should look to industry best practices and develop a strong, detailed policy," Mr. Toprani said.

First Published January 3, 2014 12:27 PM

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