Nate Harper's career spanned more than 30 years in city
February 21, 2013 10:00 AM
Former Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper.
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After being knocked off of his police motorcycle and skidding nearly 430 feet along the Parkway East, Nate Harper picked himself up and chased after the driver.
"I was more mad than anything," he said after the incident in July 1983.
Mr. Harper, 60, known more for his quiet demeanor than temper during more than six years as the city's police chief, resigned Wednesday amid a federal investigation of the police bureau.
Mr. Harper's law enforcement career spanned more than 30 years, from days on motorcycle details to his supervision of narcotics and vice investigations to his October 2006 nomination as chief by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, then the city's fresh-faced mayor. City council confirmed Mr. Ravenstahl's choice.
When he was named the department's top officer -- replacing Dominic Costa, who retired for health reasons -- Mr. Harper was hailed for his familiarity with the bureau and streets. He pledged to beef up narcotics investigations, increase the number of officers on the streets and have them spend more time walking beats.
There also was hope that the selection of Mr. Harper, the first black chief in more than a decade, would help to bridge a divide with the city's black community and increase the diversity of the police force.
"I think Chief Harper came with the support of the large segment of the community ... who felt that he had a sensitivity to the unique needs of the African-American community and the neighborhoods that are impoverished," said Beth Pittinger, the executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board. "The experience that he brought in seemed to be more community-oriented than what had preceded him."
The bureau, however, still struggles with a revolving door, losing many officers to higher-paying suburban departments. Relations with the black community remain delicate, partly because of the January 2010 confrontation between Jordan Miles, a black teenager, and three white undercover officers on a Homewood street.
Leaders of the black community sided with Mr. Miles, who said he was beaten without provocation. Mr. Harper sided with the officers, who said Mr. Miles appeared to be concealing a gun and ran when they confronted him. Councilman Ricky Burgess subsequently pushed through legislation requiring cameras in police cars, expansion of the bureau's annual report to the public and speedy completion of an accreditation process.
Still, Ms. Pittinger believes that the chief was able to deliver on some of his promise of improving community relations. He attended community meetings and was more responsive to community members, she said.
"He made an effort, and that was very positive in the dynamic between the community and the police," she said.
Tim Stevens, chairman of Black Political Empowerment Project, expressed disappointment with Mr. Harper's departure. He said Mr. Harper remained committed to improving police-community relations and only recently made recommendations for improving a brochure on what a person should do when stopped by the police. He added that many members of the black community took pride in Mr. Harper's appointment.
"We are saddened by the fact that this has happened and that the police chief is in the middle of a very unfortunate and inappropriate situation, and I was hoping he would not be found in the middle of all this and that he would survive the scrutiny," Mr. Stevens said.
Mr. Ravenstahl repeatedly has hailed the city's low crime rates, and Mr. Harper once threatened to shut down a youth football program if officials didn't take increased safety precautions.
The bureau, however, couldn't escape negative publicity. In addition to the Miles case, the bureau was criticized for mistreating protesters during the G-20 Summit in 2009 and for officer conduct that resulted in payouts in police brutality cases.
"We had our disagreements with Harper, but we always found him to be a straight shooter, which is something we appreciated," said Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. Walczak said Mr. Harper was "personally committed to diversity but, for whatever reason, was unable to make it happen." The department in 2011 was 16 percent black.
Mr. Harper, a Schenley High School graduate and Stanton Heights resident, joined the bureau in 1977. He was a patrol officer, K-9 officer and plainclothes investigator before rising through the ranks and, at various times, overseeing administrative matters, the narcotics unit and investigations.