Pittsburgh police department: What's next?
Nate Harper was widely admired as a "cop's cop" when he became chief and remains praised for his personal decency. But his tenure reveals allegations of character foibles and a questionable method of operating.
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When Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tapped Nate Harper to be police chief, morale surged among rank-and-file police officers, who saw the new boss as one of them.
The police bureau had been led for a decade by Robert W. McNeilly Jr., considered a by-the-book disciplinarian under whom some officers chafed. After him came Dominic J. Costa, a career officer perceived as a political animal who spent only a 10-month blip running the department until former Mayor Bob O'Connor died in office.
Personable albeit reserved, widely considered a "cop's cop," Mr. Harper was viewed as a balm for a city striving to smooth racial divisions and eliminate politics from the police bureau.
"I was highly excited and optimistic, because Nate Harper came from the street. He was a cycle cop. He was a detective," said Officer Robert Swartzwelder, a 20-year veteran active in the police union, whose comments echoed the feelings of many in the bureau. "He represented the interests that I felt were of the everyday police officer, and he understood the plight of the everyday uniformed officer."
But over time, some observers say, Mr. Harper's police bureau transformed into a cliquish realm where old colleagues got ahead, discipline was lax and quiet murmurs of racial divisions at headquarters emerged. A close look at Mr. Harper's tenure reveals allegations of character foibles -- mentioned even by his supporters -- and a method of operating that might have led the chief to his own doom.
"Harper took care of his friends," one veteran lieutenant said.
"Honestly," Mr. Harper's longtime spokeswoman Diane Richard said in an email, "many would say he was too nice."
Law enforcement sources who have long known Mr. Harper -- many would not speak for attribution because of concerns about their own futures -- characterized him as a man who could not say no, loyal and trustworthy to a fault, and someone who might have been manipulated by people who did not have his best interests at heart.
"He was not one of them looking for the bad [in people]. He's looking for the good in people and trying to bolster them up," said Barry Fox, a retired narcotics detective who worked under Mr. Harper. "Now if those people he was with wanted to go the wrong way, I could see where they could have been able to persuade him. Not something bad. But something that wasn't particularly right."
Seven years after reaching the pinnacle of power at the bureau, Mr. Harper's distinguished 36-year career abruptly ended in his forced resignation Feb. 20.
Mr. Harper's departure seemed to be the culmination of concerns raised over a private business he had organized with subordinates, the promotion of one of them to the force's upper echelons, secret bank accounts linked to Mr. Harper's office and his friendship with a man under federal indictment in connection with a police radio contract.
Looming over it all: an FBI investigation, described by acting Chief Regina McDonald as targeting the police bureau's office of personnel and finance. Agents have removed boxes of documents from police headquarters on the North Side.
Within hours of meeting with the FBI, the mayor -- who had stood steadfastly beside Mr. Harper despite a barrage of revelations about the chief's questionable practices -- sought and received Mr. Harper's resignation.
Mr. Harper, 60, is not giving interviews. And Robert G. Del Greco Jr., his attorney, says he is not authorized to speak to the media.
'Very professional and likable'
Mr. Fox knew the former chief since Mr. Harper, a 1971 Schenley High School graduate, joined the force in 1977. Mr. Fox taught him in the academy.
"He was very good in class ... very attentive, 'Yes sir, No ma'am.' I'd see him from time to time in uniform and then he came back to narcotics as a sergeant. He was very good and very competent at what he was doing, very professional and likable. He never rubbed people the wrong way."
Mr. Harper rode a motorcycle in the traffic unit, worked narcotics, made sergeant and then skipped several ranks to commander in 1995. It was his springboard to assistant chief the next year. Mr. Ravenstahl elevated him to the top post on Oct. 31, 2006.
He was an appealing choice for the politicians: a career man, a religious man, a black man -- in other words, an easy sell who seemed to have everything going right.
"As far as I know he was an honest man. He came from a good family and he was a good family man. Those were some good attributes," said M. Gayle Moss, former head of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. . "I don't have anything bad to say about Nate. I think he's got great character. I think he did a pretty decent job."
Mr. Harper's only obvious peccadillo: a less-than-clean tax record. Mr. Harper and his wife, retired Pittsburgh police officer Cynthia Harper, had issues with paying property taxes and sewage bills on time. Those problems were cleaned up by the time Mr. Harper became chief.
That lack of attention to detail with financial issues might have been a harbinger of problems to come.
In 2007 he apparently permitted then-Sgt. Eric Holmes to moonlight full-time as the interim head of Slippery Rock University's police force, a decision now under scrutiny after it was brought to the mayor's attention by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Once Mr. Harper was ensconced at police headquarters on Western Avenue, the command staff began noticing that the chief regularly socialized with a group of women, insiders said.
There was Kim Montgomery, an account clerk with the personnel and finance office with whom Mr. Harper had attended Schenley High School; her daughter, Officer Tonya Montgomery-Ford, who had been Mr. Harper's clerk while he was assistant chief of operations; Tamara L. Davis, second-in-command of personnel and finance; and in 2007, Ms. Richard, the bureau's spokeswoman and sister of Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant. Some say retired Lt. Donna L. Sims also was part of the group early on.
Sources say the women had unusual access to Mr. Harper, entering his office at will. There would be closed-door conversations among the group, perceived as innocent but somewhat unprofessional.
Warner Macklin III, a spokesman for Ms. Montgomery, Ms. Davis and Officer Montgomery-Ford -- all of whom acting police Chief Regina McDonald has put on paid administrative leave, without explanation -- downplayed the relationship his clients had with the chief. Ms. Sims declined comment.
"As far as my having access to him -- yes, I did have access to him on a daily basis," Ms. Richard said, "but not in an unprofessional basis or not what I thought was unprofessional access to him."
Some of the women were involved in running initiatives under Mr. Harper that were considered good ideas but were not universally embraced in practice, such as the Adopt-a-Block program and the Community Technical Investigative and Preparedness Section, or "C-TIPS."
Officers in C-TIPS were handpicked and meant to be a troubleshooting squad for the chief. Their assignments ranged from quickly addressing neighborhood complaints to working with the FBI and the Allegheny County Sheriff's Office. In 2011, they assisted with Operation Stink Bug, cracking down on drug dealers using methadone clinics to recruit potential clients. Other times, they helped enforce safety at youth football games.
C-TIPS initially answered to Lt. Sims and then moved under Mr. Harper's control. Over time it became a target of derision among some police officers who believed it was largely stocked with old friends of Mr. Harper as a vehicle for them to do light work but make extra money.
Some white officers began to note an influx of black officers into headquarters as a result of Mr. Harper's sphere of influence.
Other people noted that any chief would surround himself with trusted subordinates; in Mr. Harper's case, he knew many black officers.
"I don't think that Chief Harper differentiated between blacks and whites in that manner," Ms. Richard said. "If nothing else, the chief prided himself on being fair. He provided many officers in the bureau the opportunity to expand on their specialty or place officers in positions to gain experience and grow as an officer."
A source with a police background who has known Mr. Harper for more than 30 years saw something else in how Mr. Harper ran the bureau: the shadow of former chief Earl Buford, who had his own inner circle. Mr. Harper had worked for Mr. Buford in narcotics.
"The overtime was flowing like crazy, unfettered access for the chosen few and no access for the others. It was that kind of environment," the source said of the department under Mr. Buford. "[Perhaps] that is how [Mr. Harper] thought it was OK to supervise -- emulate that. And he didn't realize he could be taken advantage of."
'Discipline really went downhill'
One of Mr. Harper's more controversial decisions was to push for the 2007 promotion of George Trosky, an old friend from their traffic days together, from sergeant to commander despite a checkered past.
That promotion was an example of Mr. Harper's loyalty, some say.
"There was political heat brought on him," Mr. Fox said of the Trosky promotion. "Nate stood by him."
Critics say Mr. Harper stood by too many people he should not have.
"If you disciplined people, nothing would happen. You'd send the disciplinary reports down there. He'd just dismiss them. The discipline really went downhill when he took over," according to the veteran lieutenant.
Former Chief McNeilly agreed with that assessment based on information from his wife, Catherine, a Pittsburgh police commander, and other members of the command staff with whom he remains friendly.
"Discipline became much more lax," Chief McNeilly said. "My wife did disciplinary reports that when they got to the chief's office, they were dismissed. Some were minor and some were not minor."
One person with whom the former chief's relationship is eyed with curiosity is Mr. Harper's onetime friend, entrepreneur Arthur Bedway Jr. of Robinson.
Mr. Bedway, 63, has been indicted federally and accused of setting up a company called Alpha Outfitters, which received a $337,000 contract to install and maintain computers and radios in city police cars. A former city systems analyst, Christine Kebr, 56, of Castle Shannon, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to taking $6,000 in bribes from Mr. Bedway.
Federal prosecutors have said in filings and statements in court that a third, unnamed individual was involved in meetings leading to the Alpha Outfitters contract. Mr. Harper has said he wasn't involved in the company and didn't get payments from Mr. Bedway.
Complicating matters, Mr. Harper's wife worked for a time as a consultant for Carnegie-based Victory Security, with which Mr. Bedway has been closely associated. The relationship raised questions about whether Mr. Harper favored his friend's firm.
Herman Watson, a community relations specialist for Boston-based Winn Residential, owners of the Maple Ridge Apartments in East Hills, told the Post-Gazette how Victory Security and Mr. Harper seemingly interacted.
Mr. Watson, the property manager of Maple Ridge in 2009, said that year Victory Security was vying to renew a contract for about $50,000 a year to provide guards for the apartments.
Victory Security CEO Kathleen Bowman arrived at Maple Ridge with Ms. Harper. Ms. Bowman, said Mr. Watson, "introduced her as, 'This is Cynthia Harper, her husband is the chief of police.' "
A few days later, Mr. Harper showed up at Maple Ridge and likened the open-air drug dealing to "New Jack City" -- a reference to a 1991 film depicting crack-induced urban chaos -- Mr. Watson said. "Only thing he mentioned is he was going to talk with the [narcotics division's] Impact Squad and try to get this cleaned up."
The consulting question
In February 2012 Mr. Harper made a fateful decision to sign paperwork for the state listing him as one of five organizers of a private venture called Diverse Public Safety Consulting LLC. The other signatories were Ms. Davis, Officer Montgomery-Ford, Cmdr. Holmes and Sgt. Barry Budd in intelligence.
Mr. Harper told the Post-Gazette that the business was meant to function in his retirement, that it was not currently generating revenue or soliciting clients and that there was a desire to lay claim to its name.
But Mr. Harper did not mention the venture to his bosses. And news of the business did not sit well with them.
In recent weeks, the bad news piled up for Mr. Harper. There was an FBI investigation of the bureau's personnel and finance office, secret chief's office accounts at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Federal Credit Union that funded debit cards belonging to the mayor's bodyguards, and the deposit of a check from the University of Pittsburgh meant for the city into an unauthorized credit union account.
There has been no explanation from Mr. Harper.
After the FBI removed papers from the credit union and police headquarters, Sandra Ganster, Ms. Davis' boss and the director of personnel and finance, visited the U.S. Attorney's Office and spoke with prosecutors and the FBI.
After a two-hour meeting Feb. 20 with the FBI, the details of which have not been revealed, Mr. Ravenstahl decided Mr. Harper had to go.
It is important to note that Mr. Harper has not been charged with any crime and that many questions remain. But there seems to be universal despair that the man who seemed honorable and true left the public life in such an ignominious way.
"How heavy is my heart? Betrayed? Disappointed? Surprised? You know, the whole situation is sad," said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board.
"To a degree I think he was naive. And that sounds ridiculous when talking about someone who was a police officer for 36 years. But I think on a personal level he was trusting. And I think he could have been unwittingly exploited and taken advantage of," Ms. Pittinger said.
"He had a lot of pressure on him, too, because of his own history. He came up through the ranks. And in that environment they [police officers] trust everybody for a large part of their existence -- backing each other up. And I could see that happening. And he just ended up being betrayed.
"I'm not going to say he was a victim. But I think it could have been a calamity of circumstances and fate that brought him here."
First Published March 3, 2013 12:00 am