Albert L. Mills, who joined the Pittsburgh Police Bureau in search of a better life for his family and became the first African-American person to rise to assistant superintendent, died Monday of complications of heart disease in Loretto Nursing Home near Syracuse, N.Y. He was 86 and had lived in Manlius, N.Y., since 1987.
Mr. Mills joined the city's Police Bureau in 1943 and climbed through the ranks to earn what was at the time the bureau's second-highest rank. While he held that position during the 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Mills was a mentor to other African-American officers who also aspired to earn leadership roles.
"I didn't know him well," said Cmdr. Cheryl Doubt, who joined the force in 1979 and now supervises the Hill District station. "But when you come on the job, at least knowing that someone like him was in that kind of position gave you the optimism that [success] was achievable."
Mr. Mills was born and raised in the Hill District and graduated in 1936 from Schenley High School. He attended the University of Pittsburgh for two years but did not graduate because his family did not have enough money for more classes, said his daughter, Stephanie Threatte, of Manlius.
After leaving college, Mr. Mills worked for a government printing office in Washington, D.C., then as a janitor at the Carnegie Library in Oakland, Mrs. Threatte said. But after he married Hilda Parks in 1940, he sought police work because he believed it offered better pay and opportunities, his daughter said.
Mr. Mills joined the Police Bureau in 1943 but then was drafted into the U.S. Army, his daughter said. He served as a sergeant with military police in Guam during World War II.
After his discharge, Mr. Mills returned to Pittsburgh and police work. He walked beats in Squirrel Hill, East Liberty and on the South Side before moving up to the rank of detective in 1955.
"I'm sure racial conditions of that time made it difficult for him at times, but actually I think he had more of those issues in the military than with the police," his daughter said. But it wasn't his way to worry his family with those issues, she added.
"Mostly, he was very much concerned about his family, about doing a good job and providing a solid lifestyle for us and my mother," Mrs. Threatte said. "He was a child of Pittsburgh, and he knew a lot of people from walking beats in different parts of the city. That helped him to have a lot of balance in his relationships with people."
With his former partner, Luther Montgomery, Mr. Mills worked as a homicide detective. Both were big, imposing men, but Mr. Mills "could keep you laughing," said Doris Hilliard, a longtime clerical specialist with the bureau who knew Mr. Mills as a detective and later worked for him after his promotion.
"He was kind of a father figure, and very gentle," she said. "People would seek him out for advice."
Mr. Mills held the now-defunct rank of gold badge detective when, in 1966, he was promoted to inspector -- a position known as commander in the present-day force. He was promoted again to assistant superintendent on June 12, 1970, to replace the late Eugene Coon, who left the force after he was elected Allegheny County sheriff.
Mr. Mills was assigned to oversee the service branch, which included records, communications, personnel, finance and other administrative functions. During his tenure, he oversaw the department's shift from massive paper archives to computerized records.
He also juggled resources as the police force struggled with gasoline shortages in the 1970s and addressed community gripes or questions as head of community relations. He dressed immaculately, smoked a pipe, and walked and swam daily to stay fit.
"He was very professional, very deliberate in his work," said retired city police Superintendent and Chief Robert Coll. "He was a person who certainly let you know when he thought you were wrong. That's what I enjoyed about him -- God knows we all need that kind of guidance from time to time."
Ophelia "Cookie" Coleman, a retired detective, said Mr. Mills also made time to meet, support and answer questions from young African-American officers.
"He was very instrumental in making sure we stayed in the academy," said Ms. Coleman, who was among the first women to take the police admissions test in 1975 and joined the force a year later.
"He would talk over any issues and help us to navigate through the system, let us know what the job expected from us. And you were just so proud that someone who looked like you had reached this position."
Mr. Mills was a member of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, where he was a past Master and became a 33rd degree Mason. He was also active with Big Brothers, the Centre Avenue YMCA and Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District, where he was a trustee and elder.
He enjoyed hunting, fishing, attending Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games at Forbes Field and rooting for the Steelers, his daughter said.
Mr. Mills retired in 1982. Five years later, he and his wife moved to the Syracuse, N.Y., area, where he became a member of Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Mills is survived by another daughter, Barbara Johnson of Philadelphia; one son, LaVerne Mills of Chicago; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. today at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1000 Bryn Mawr Road, where the funeral will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow. Burial will be in Restland Memorial Park, Monroeville.
Arrangements are by White Memorial Chapel, Point Breeze.
Cindi Lash can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1973.