Police chief nominee reveals key priorities

Harper wants more officers walking the streets, larger undercover narcotics force

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A city undercover narcotics unit will grow and uniformed officers will spend more time walking the streets, pledged Nate Harper, nominee for chief of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, yesterday.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Nate Harper, nominee for city police chief, listens as Gov. Ed Rendell details the use of $2 million in state aid for officer salaries
Click photo for larger image.

Those early indications of his approach to policing were part of a whirlwind introduction to the public stage that included an interview with City Council and a news conference with Gov. Ed Rendell at which the men detailed the use of $2 million a year in state aid for officer salaries.

"This really helps us return a lot quicker to the 900 [officer] strength," said Assistant Chief Harper, who has not yet been confirmed by City Council to his new post. He said the force is at 849 now, with undetermined numbers of recruits set to start training in February and July.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who nominated Asst. Chief Harper last week, stopped short of promising to reach the long-targeted 900-officer level by a specific date.

"We don't know when we're getting there," he said. "We are committed to getting there as quickly as possible."

Asst. Chief Harper said residents "want to see more foot patrol officers, to have that community connection." He said he'll require that officers leave their cars for 90-minute foot patrols, unless an emergency requires that they use their cars.

Neighborhood business districts will get special attention, he said. Graffiti enforcement also will be higher priority.

He said he'll add to the dozen-member undercover Impact Squad, which conducts surveillance and surprise arrests of drug dealers. Former Chief Dominic J. Costa, who retired last month, had considered merging that group into the uniformed Street Response Unit, which will remain under the new chief.

Unit members move in after the Impact Squad has hit an area.

He said he'll try to address those priorities without reducing efforts elsewhere, or driving up overtime costs, but new recruits are essential.

The terms of the state grant, announced last month and detailed yesterday, require the city to add 40 officers above its current baseline, said Mr. Rendell. That means boosting the force to 889, just 11 short of the level sought by the city's state-appointed overseer, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority.

The city will test applicants Dec. 6, and then hire from a list of potentially hundreds of candidates.

Asst. Chief Harper said he will reshuffle top brass, making Paul Donaldson his deputy, earning $87,174.

Outgoing Deputy Chief Earl D. Woodyard filed an injury claim Oct. 18, and is taking personal days while his workers' compensation claim is "under investigation," Asst. Chief Harper said. If Deputy Chief Woodyard was working, he would be on modified duty.

Asst. Chief Harper would not detail the claim. If he gets approved for workers' compensation, Deputy Chief Woodyard would be entitled to $745 a week, or the equivalent of $38,740 a year, but would quickly become eligible for greater disability payments.

If the deputy chief returned to work with a demotion to commander, the next rank under assistant chief, he would take a $9,247 pay cut to $77,927.

"We're in conversation with the mayor's office" about Deputy Chief Woodyard's future with the bureau, said Asst. Chief Harper.

Deputy Chief Woodyard could not be reached for comment.

Deputy Chief Woodyard's status is "probably one of the biggest questions in the bureau," said Fraternal Order of Police President Jim Malloy.

"I am elated that he's no longer deputy chief," he said, calling him "stubborn as a door nail."

Asst. Chief Harper said his assistant chiefs would be current narcotics Cmdr. Maurita Bryant, Special Deployment Division Cmdr. William Bochter, and Regina McDonald, who is already an assistant chief. They will earn $82,062.

"Commanders will have more autonomy in their zones," he said.

He said he didn't yet know the future status of North Side station Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly. She is on paid leave pending an Office of Municipal Investigations review of an e-mail she sent to council detailing discipline against Detective Francis Rende, which was allegedly quashed by city Operations Director Dennis Regan.

Mr. Regan is also on paid leave pending a Law Department investigation into whether he improperly helped Detective Rende, who is the brother of his housemate.

Asst. Chief Harper's nomination needs council approval, but that seems assured, with a vote set for Tuesday. Members lauded Mr. Harper in the interview session.

"You're one to roll up your sleeves, put on your blue jeans and just get things done," said Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle.

Mr. Rendell also announced a $125,000 grant to Allegheny County to pay for drug analysis equipment that should help reduce a 1,600-case backlog, and a $500,000 grant to the county to help it share criminal case information statewide.

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


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