On Feb. 20, Pittsburgh Police Chief Nathan Harper resigned at the request of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.  Harper quit amidst a federal investigation of corruption allegations involving police department contracting and possible misuse of funds from unauthorized bank accounts.  (Harper has not been charged with any wrongdoing.)

Pittsburgh now faces a situation that cities all over American face periodically: the selection of a new chief.  In Pittsburgh, the mayor makes the selection, but as you would guess, many people are voicing their opinions on what matters in the selection of the new chief.  All of this became even more complicated when, just days after forcing Harper’s resignation, Mayor Ravenstahl unexpectedly abandoned his bid for re-election.  (The Mayor denied that the investigation played any part in his decision; he has not been charged.) So at this point we have an acting chief, a lame duck Mayor serving out the remaining ten months of his term, and an unresolved investigation.

On March 6, Pittsburgh’s City Council will hold a public hearing on the choice of the new chief; I have been invited to give testimony.  Here are a few of the points I’ll make.

Pick now, or wait?  Given that we know we will have a new mayor in less than a year, Mayor Ravenstahl should strongly consider staying with an acting chief, and allowing the new mayor to select the new chief.  Since there is a reasonable chance that the new mayor will simply prefer to have his or her own chief running the department, we should wait.

Insider or outsider?  Candidates from inside and outside the department each have their advantages.  Insiders would know the lay of the land, and would bring continuity.  An outsider would bring fresh eyes to the situation and might be more willing to make needed changes.  Ultimately, it depends on whether we think the department should continue heading down the same path, or should get a fresh perspective from the top down.  I would hesitate to rule out any excellent inside candidate, but with the ongoing investigation, a fresh perspective seems necessary.

Integrity is paramount.  With the ongoing scandal, nothing is more important than restoring the reputation of the agency in the eyes of the public.  For that reason, the next chief must be not only a very good police officer and a strong leader, but a person of unquestioned integrity.

Experience is key.  This is not the time for someone to learn on the job how to be a chief and an administrator.  Whoever is picked should have experience as a chief or deputy chief in a department that is at least half the size of Pittsburgh’s.  The person should also have experience working with communities in the city to meet their goals, and an unquestioned commitment to working as partners with citizens as part of real community policing.

Diversity in the ranks.  I’ve been working with the Pittsburgh Police command staff for some years, as well as a number of other departments in our county.  There is universal agreement among them that their agencies do not have sufficient racial, ethnic, or gender diversity.  There is strong disagreements about how to become more diverse. Nevertheless, the next chief must bring a rock-solid commitment to diversity in the ranks, and a willingness to closely re-examine current recruitment and hiring practices.

Process cannot be ignored.  The search should be real (not wired for an insider), and must be nationwide.  And it should include input from a citizen’s advisory board formed for this purpose, which would interview all of the final candidates and give the mayor feedback on them.

Those are my six crucial considerations.  What would yours be?

  1. […] announced that he would leave the choice of a new chief to his successor.  In a post on March 6 (here), I spelled out what my criteria would be for a picking a new chief.  These included unquestioned […]

  2. […] a post last week, I discussed the choice of a new chief of police in Pittsburgh.  Nathan Harper, the Chief of the Bureau for […]

  3. Frank L. says:

    We had controversy around the “Top Cop” here in Victoria, Australia. We had a female Chief Commissioner for several years who was from interstate. She instituted many managerial and cultural reforms to the organization, however, she was constantly attacked by the Police Association (union) for not having enough operational experience, coming from New South Wales and not Victoria, and also for being a women. Although the latter was implied, but never verbally acknowledged. She planned to retire from office in March 2009, a major disaster that cost the lives of 173 people known as the Black Saturday Bushfires occurred in February, she left the police to head up the agency involved in reconstruction. However, the subsequent Royal Commission into the events was extremely critical of her performance, or lack of, leading up to and during the fire.

    Her Deputy Commissioner would become her successor, who was previously with the Australian Federal Police, and also considered an outsider. He was linked to a political scandal involving release of manipulated police statistics to help the government at the time get re-elected (they lost) and a campaign by the Police Ministers own office to force him out (by linking damaging information to the media). This series of scandals affected most of the senior leadership and once again had Victoria Police looking for a new leader.

    They went with a safe bet and promoted an internal candidate who joined the police force back in 1974 and rose through the ranks. Not the most charismatic leader, but after all the controversy at the top, he has sort of brought stability to the force, restored the relationship with the police union, not heavily involved with politics, and restored morale by showing the organization that after almost a decade of bringing in an outsider that a Victorian could still do the job.

    Even though the organization is now on the right track, the problems with the last two Chief Commissioners keep coming back. If you talk to anyone, they all believe that Victoria Police needs to have a Chief Commissioner modeled after S.I. “Mick” Miller, who led from 1977-87 and was by all accounts a true blue policeman. Perhaps police organizations need to look back and see what qualities the best Top Cop possessed and try to find candidates today that live up to them, instead of treating it like another political appointment. Even any job should be based on merit the Chief Commissioner/Chief of Police needs to be.

    • Very interesting indeed, Frank. Thanks for telling us what has transpired in Victoria. It will be interesting indeed to see if we go with a “safe bet” insider or someone from the outside — see Neil’s comment here.

  4. Neil Moore says:


    Just some thoughts from a retired chief…

    1. I would urge you to reconsider the position of waiting. One year is a very long time to be without a permanent leader. The incoming selection of the chief could be given some measure of security by using a contract. This would also mean some very serious vetting of the candidates.

    2. The safer bet here is an outsider. As investigations are swirling around, an outsider can offer an objective set of eyes and ears to the impending issues and to the remedies.

    For items 3 and 4 I couldn’t agree more. This is especially true if there is already a corruption investigation on-going.

    5. I remember a time when Pittsburgh PD was known as being very gender diverse. One police administration text cited a number that 25 percent of the Pittsburgh PD were women. It would be a shame if that was the real number and the PD had slipped from that number one position in our nation. At our Institute we are advocating targeted recruiting and intense selection procedures.

    6. In the 21st century how can an agency select a police chief without inviting a large number of stakeholders to weigh in on the candidates. We just returned from a training session at Sanford, Florida. Their police chief selection process involved a wide variety of the community.

    Just a few thoughts…for what it is worth.Best of luck on your testimony.

    • Neil: Very interesting comments. Thank you. As you’ll see in today’s post, which I’m about to compose, the mayor announced yesterday that he will wait and allow the next mayor to make the choice of a permanent chief. I respect what you say in your point 1; ten months is a lot of time to be without a permanent chief. However, I can’t conceive of any worthy candidate taking the job knowing that the time in the job could be just months. A contract would always include that the chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor, so that could not be a way to tie the incoming mayor’s hands. I believe you are right about diversity; at one time the Pittsburgh force was the most diverse in the country, on both gender and racial dimensions. That’s changed, and with the people hired in those years getting near retirement, the change will accelerate.

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