In the mid-1980s, two Pittsburgh police officers were dispatched to Los Angeles for a seminar on a pioneering drug education and prevention program.
One of them, Regina McDonald, was not your typical cop. A onetime schoolteacher, McDonald was demure in manner, well-educated as evidenced by her two master's degrees, and quite short, standing just 5 feet 2 inches.
Her traveling companion was Barry Fox, a streetwise narcotics detective who would eventually become a drug-busting legend among cops and criminals alike.
Eventually, the pair returned to Pittsburgh to introduce the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program here. Their approaches couldn't have been more different.
Fox was like Serpico, street savvy and rough-and-tumble; McDonald was like a principal, book-smart and buttoned-down.
"We're two total opposites," Fox said recently, characterizing them as the "yin" and "yang" of the policing world.
"She's there to knock on the doors to play with the kids. I'm there to kick down the door, run past the kids and get to the parents' dope."
Next week, the reserved policewoman who never worked as a detective or ran a precinct will be promoted to assistant chief of investigations -- only the second woman to hold a chief's rank. She will take over from William Mullen, another yin to her yang. Mullen, a streetwise cop himself, is a former narcotics detective and station commander.
It's a major shift in responsibility for the 53-year-old McDonald, who is currently in charge of the narcotics and vice squad. Heading the investigations branch will be far more challenging than running a single unit of 45 detectives; as an assistant chief, she will oversee more than 100 detectives and multiple squads, including homicide, sex assault, robbery, burglary and narcotics.
McDonald said she is up to the challenge. She doesn't view her relative lack of street experience as an issue, pointing to her strengths in training, logistics, organization and administration.
"I don't see it as a drawback," McDonald said of comparisons to other officers, "because they don't have the kind of experience that I have."
Narcotics Lt. Michael Brown, who has served under McDonald for about two years, agrees.
"It certainly helps to have street experience because you can understand where the investigation is evolving from, but for the most part, once you get up past sergeant to the lieutenant and commander level, most of the time you're inside doing the administrative duties of the unit," Brown said.
"She's very organized and very strong administratively. With that in mind, I think she'll have no problem running the administration portion of investigations."
McDonald's promotion comes as part of a domino effect triggered by the scheduled departure next week of Deputy Chief Charles Moffatt. He will take over the Allegheny County Police.
When Moffatt leaves, Mullen will ascend to his position, and McDonald will take Mullen's spot.
It is a role she has grown familiar with. McDonald has filled in as investigations branch supervisor several times when Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. was away on military leave, prompting a similar chain reaction.
Supervising has long been a career aspiration for McDonald, who said she made the decision years ago to move up the ranks instead of remaining a uniformed officer for life.
McDonald, a lifelong resident of the West End -- specifically Sheraden, she notes with pride -- started as a teacher. At one point in the mid-1970s, she held down three jobs, working as a substitute teacher, a physical education teacher and an administrator in the city's parks and recreation department. In her Citiparks job she came into contact with park police and became interested in the job.
She was in one of the early academy classes to train women, joining the force in 1978.
McDonald's first assignment was spent riding in a police wagon in Hazelwood. Eventually, she moved into crime prevention and then became a full-time D.A.R.E. officer, working with schoolchildren.
"It just fit in great," McDonald said.
In 1984, she earned her second master's degree. Her first was in recreation and parks; this one was in administration of justice. McDonald's thesis topic: police stress.
McDonald eventually made sergeant, and in 1995, was promoted directly to the rank of commander, skipping lieutenant. She took over the community-oriented policing program, then worked at the academy and finally moved to narcotics in September 2000.
Fox was retired by then, but when he heard that she was taking over the narcotics squad, he looked her up. He recalled McDonald from her first days in the academy, when he taught techniques of disarming armed individuals.
"I had to use my mouth on the street," McDonald said. "I couldn't use my fists."
Fox remembered her work ethic and no-nonsense approach from their trip to California and now that she was entering narcotics, his territory, he thought he could offer some advice.
"I just kept stressing to her, 'It's a management position. You don't have to know everything there is about narcotics and vice. You have to know how to treat people and how to get the most out of people,' " he said.
He also wanted to tell her that the detectives would flourish if given good direction but also the latitude to be independent.
That is what McDonald said she has done.
"You give these guys the ball and they go with it. They're doing an outstanding job," she said, pointing to several cases that led to the arrests of major drug traffickers.
Now, McNeilly has given McDonald the ball. What mark she will make remains to be seen.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Commander Regina McDonald will become the second female to hold a chief's rank in the city's police department when she takes over as assistant chief of investigations.
Click photo for larger image.
In the news: McDonald, commander of the Pittsburgh police's narcotics and vice squad, will be promoted next week to assistant chief of investigations, becoming only the second woman to hold a chief's rank in the department's history.
Quote: "I had to use my mouth on the street. I couldn't use my fists."
Education: She graduated from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and earned master's degrees from Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Family: Single; she has a boyfriend and a Yorkshire terrier name Coco.
Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1962.