Myriad attributes sought in new Pittsburgh police chief
March 7, 2013 5:00 AM
From left, David Harris, University of Pittsburgh law professor; Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union; Robert McNeilly, former Pittsburgh police chief; and Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, listen during a Pittsburgh City Council post-agenda public hearing on the hiring of a new police chief.
By Moriah Balingit / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A person of "unquestioned integrity." A track record of "dealing with labor management issues in a fair, equitable, apolitical way." A demonstrated commitment to diversity and community relations. A "knowledge and ability to handle any kind of chemical radioactive biological or nuclear threat to our area."
As community leaders and public officials laid out their desired attributes for the next Pittsburgh police chief, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak wondered aloud if the person they were searching for might only be found in comic books.
"We're really looking for a Superman," she said, "or a Superwoman."
In a back-to-back post-agenda session and public hearing that lasted four hours Wednesday afternoon, community members packed the gallery of city council's chambers as every member of council and city Controller Michael Lamb heard from community members, lawyers, activists, public officials and one past police chief on how the city should move forward in its search for a new chief.
After meeting with federal investigators Feb. 20, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked Chief Nate Harper to step down, saying he had learned things about Mr. Harper that made him question his fitness for the job.
Regina McDonald, previously the assistant chief of administration, has served as acting chief since then, attempting to make over the embattled bureau which was rocked by news of an FBI investigation that became public Feb. 14 when investigators seized records from police headquarters. The bureau's brass have said they believe investigators are targeting the personnel and finance department and are probing allegations of misappropriation.
The mayor has the authority to nominate a chief, who then has to be approved by city council. It's unclear if Mr. Ravenstahl, who announced Friday he would not run for re-election, plans to select a new chief before he leaves office in 10 months, since his successor could dismiss his choice. His spokeswoman Marissa Doyle referred inquiries to public safety director Mike Huss, who did not respond.
But many of those invited to the post-agenda seat at the table recommended Mr. Ravenstahl hold off on choosing a new police chief, saying it could prove disruptive to a bureau already roiled with controversy.
The word "integrity" was repeated by nearly every member of the panel who was summoned by city council for the post-agenda meeting. (Members of the public were allowed to speak during the public hearing that followed.)
David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies law enforcement, said the next chief should have "unquestioned integrity that will expect nothing less" from subordinates.
Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the bureau is in danger of slipping into what many view as the dark days of the mid-1990s, when the death of an unarmed black motorist prompted a federal civil rights probe and a consent decree that mandated extra training and federal oversight.
The decree brought progress to the bureau by mandating more training and better management of the department, Mr. Walczak said.
"Unfortunately we seem to be moving away from that," he said. He pointed to payouts for litigation connected to police response during the 2009 G-20 conference and an incident on the South Side in January in which five off-duty police officers fired at a fleeing car, injuring both people inside. "Restoring ... integrity to the department and restoring control over the officers is huge."
And he cautioned that the next choice should be made without the approval of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1, the union that represents the bureau's rank and file. They would not sign off, he said, on a "disciplinarian."
Former Chief Robert McNeilly, who now heads the police department in Elizabeth Township, agreed, saying allowing the union to select the next chief is akin to "the tail wagging the dog."
Chief McNeilly also advocated the use of an outside firm to assist in the search. Mr. Harris said the city should conduct a nationwide search.
But some disagreed as to whether the mayor should consider an internal candidate. Councilman Ricky Burgess, who called for the post-agenda and public hearing, has been steadfast in his position that he would not vote to elevate anyone from within the bureau.
But past FOP president Dan O'Hara, who was sent to represent the union at the public hearing, said, "To go outside the bureau, it will send a message that [rank-and-file officers] should be looking outside the department" for job opportunities.
He also believes the union, whose members best understand the challenges of policing, should have greater input in the process.