Nate Harper hardly a scapegoat in his downfall

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No matter what anyone says, former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper is not a victim of circumstance.

He may be many things, but the 60-year-old Stanton Heights resident is not someone who stumbled into "the middle of a very unfortunate and inappropriate situation," to quote my friend Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project.

On the contrary, Mr. Harper is the prime architect of everything that happened to him in recent weeks. The increased scrutiny that led to his abrupt resignation during an FBI probe was not the fault of reporters he's allegedly offended. There was no conspiracy to take "a brother" down a couple of pegs. The headline on the editorial page of the latest New Pittsburgh Courier screamed "Chief Harper witch-hunt," but that's a more hyperbolic interpretation of Mr. Harper's travails than the facts warrant.

Ironically, Ulish Carter, the Courier's very capable managing editor, made a good case for Mr. Harper's removal from office by citing the mounting circumstantial evidence against the former chief, though that was the opposite of his column's intention.

It isn't Mr. Carter's fault that his full-throated endorsement of Mr. Harper's integrity was published the very day the 30-year veteran of the Pittsburgh police resigned his rank after six years at the helm. In fact, he shouldn't feel a tenth as embarrassed as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the man the former chief served as both consigliere and the highest-ranking African-American in his administration.

The day before the chief rejoined civilian life with a thud, Mr. Ravenstahl assured the media that he would not back away from Mr. Harper on the basis of innuendo and unproven charges. Instead of coming across as a principled defender of one of his closest advisers during a contentious primary election season, Mr. Ravenstahl sounded petulant, pointlessly defiant and disconnected from the crumbling political realities around him.

When the mayor met with the media the next day to announce that Mr. Harper had resigned under pressure, he was equal parts chastened and indignant as he blurted out "I am not a target" at the start of a nearly 14-minute news conference. Mr. Ravenstahl's answers alternated between what seemed like a dazed recitation of the facts to flashes of characteristic prickliness. This is a mayor who is constitutionally incapable of coming across as charming.

At one point, Mr. Ravenstahl gave a sarcastic rejoinder to what was a legitimate question. In doing so, the mayor, who is immersed in one of the most damaging controversies of his political career, came across as both small-minded and unsympathetic. Could Mr. Ravenstahl have painted a less flattering picture of himself with less than three months until a primary that could lay the foundation for his bid to become mayor-for-life?

After repeating that he was not a target of the FBI, Mr. Ravenstahl swatted a journalist by name, adding that the reporter was probably disappointed that he -- the mayor -- wasn't a target of the investigation. It is rare to see such an open display of self-pity and mean-spiritedness by a top city official with so much to lose.

Remember, this is the guy who sets the tone for his appointees at every level of city government. This is the mayor who chose to stick by his former chief of police even as the FBI was carting boxes of records out of police headquarters. This is the regime that Mr. Harper chose to serve for six years.

We don't know what the FBI and the local U.S. attorney's office told the mayor about his former police chief, the origin and disposition of shadowy city police accounts and the workings of the so-called "detail mafia," but whatever it was, it finally compelled Mr. Ravenstahl to cut bait.

I'm constantly assuring folks that the only thing I have against Mr. Harper -- besides the shoddy oversight of the Jordan Miles affair, the lack of diversity within the police force and its terrible relations with the black community -- is his capitulation to police anarchy during the G-20 summit in 2009.

As we recall, police from other states had a free hand under color of authority to assault and arrest a whole bunch of peaceful demonstrators, university students, reporters and assorted innocent bystanders during Mr. Harper's watch. It was among the most brutal treatment of American civilians in years, but Mr. Harper and his colleagues were commended for keeping the peace.

It is upon those same shoulders that responsibility for a colossal fall from the top ranks of the Pittsburgh police ultimately resides.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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