Last week’s shooting near Willie Stargell Field during a midget football game in Homewood was the last straw for Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper. Even before the incident, Harper was fed up with the Black-on-Black violence in Pittsburgh, but this incident gave him one more reason to be concerned, one more reason to say enough is enough.
|TIME TO BE PROACTIVE—Chief Nate Harper is fed up with crime in the city’s neighborhoods.
“To have that type of violence, to have 30 people (witness it) and no one say who the shooter was, and to make it even worse you have all these kids and to have no counselors come out, what is this telling our community? Get used to it. This is the way we live,” Harper said at an exclusive editorial board meeting with the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Every parent should be upset that these knuckleheads, these terrorists did this.”
With a proven record of effectiveness demonstrated during last year’s G-20 Summit, Harper has been contacted by other states and even foreign countries to share his model. It is this same dedication and firmness that he carries with him to address crime in the African-American community.
“In the past statistics drove the department. When you have crime happening on your front steps statistics don’t help,” Harper said. “My goal is to get the homicides down to a minimum and the minimum to me is one too much.”
For Harper, violence in predominantly Black neighborhoods is in direct correlation with the breakdown of the Black family. Since the shooting on Aug. 15, he is more focused than ever on taking a proactive stance on violence to mend family values, uplift African-American youth, and improve police/community relations.
“Different cultures don’t have the amount of homicides the Black community has and we can’t just blame it on economics,” Harper said. “The parents don’t tell (the children) how they expect them to behave. We see Black parents going to the schools wanting to jump on the teachers for telling their children how to behave.”
In the wake of the shooting, rumors swirled that gambling was taking place in connection with Allegheny County Midget Football League. After confirming that similar incidents had occurred in the past, Harper said the community must be responsible for ending this kind of activity and has encouraged them to put the same emphasis on academics as they do on sports.
“We had word that there was $25,000 riding on a football game. We have to clean that up. It’s not just law enforcement’s job. I’m not going to be responsible for one of these kids being shot,” Harper said. “In Squirrel Hill, if they see a group of youth hanging on the corner, they watch and if they see some activity, they call the police. That’s the difference between the Jewish community and the Black community, they support each other.”
On his end, Harper said he is working harder to increase police presence in the community. He is currently focused on increasing the time an officer has to “park and walk” from one and a half hours to two.
“I’m trying to get boots back on the ground. We can’t patrol and be effective if we don’t know our customers. It’s about relationships. It’s about being human,” Harper said. “It’s all about providing a service. (I tell the officers) you’re servants and yes, you hold a prestigious position, but don’t let it go to your head. It’s about getting those officers into these communities.”
With 25 current openings in the police department and a total of 40 projected for next year, Harper is working towards a more diversified police force. While he feels this will have a positive impact on community relations, he is also encouraging officers to attend community meetings and to get to know their neighborhoods better.
“It’s easy for a White officer to look at the Black community and say I don’t know anyone here, don’t care. That can be a prevalent attitude,” Harper said. “When you look at the top companies in the country, they’re the most diverse. We can’t be the best with a police force that is 90 percent White. We have an excellent pool of minorities; we’re just not reaching them.”
Initially, interested applicants could only take the test to be considered for the police force every three years but Harper had it changed to every 18 months. As part of an effort that is twofold, police officers set up recruitment tables at community events. This helps provide security to keep the community safe, but also downplays the police presence, while providing more opportunities to recruit Blacks for the force.
“I don’t want it to be a police state,” Harper said. “I don’t want the community to think they can’t have an event without police presence.”
In collaboration with District 9 Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, Harper has been working to reduce gang related violence through the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime. Several arrests have been made in connection to another Homewood shooting and police officers are working to dismantle the entire group.
“We said if there’s a shooting and it’s gang related, we’re going after the whole group,” Harper said. “You can’t say the White man’s doing this to you. You’re doing this to yourself. You’ve put yourself on a plantation. Don’t you get tired of looking over your shoulder? You have two deadly forces out there working to get you.”
Those two deadly forces are rival gangs and law enforcement that’s constantly hunting them. However, he understands that once you’ve entered the criminal justice system, it’s very hard to leave it behind and for this reason, he is focused on preventative programs targeting youth, but also helping those in the system get out.
“It’s a vicious revolving door. We lock you up; you come back out. We lock you up; you come back out. It’s almost like we’re manufacturing criminals,” Harper said. “When we had to cut back in ’95 we lost our D.A.R.E. services and our crime prevention services. If we don’t begin to cultivate our youth, it’s like a lawn, you have to cultivate the lawn or the weeds are going to take over.”
Harper is looking to the church community to take the lead in some of these preventative measures and sees these institutions as the glue that can hold the community together. He said the church is a key resource for connecting with professional development programs such as the one at Community College of Allegheny County that helps people gain their GED.
“(The church) is where I get my marching orders. We want the church to make an assessment of the community,” Harper said. “We want people to come outside of the church and connect with the community. Each individual in your community is part of your fabric.”
He said with the number of churches in the community, especially the larger churches, so much more can be accomplished if all the programs behind the walls are somehow brought to the people on the streets. He said the police are actively working with the churches because he understands the importance of the church. But the men on the street must be made aware of the programs in the churches. And churches need to work together more for the benefit of
He was also critical of some violence prevention community groups he sees as being combative with not only each other but with those trying to help them, as well as their tendency to rest on the injustices of the past.
“I tried to bring (Community Empowerment Association) and the Kingsley Center together because we need to have more collaboration. It’s harder when you have all these groups competing for the same funds,” Harper said. “I’d rather make an investment in these programs that are being preventative then reactive.”
During his childhood growing up in the Hill District and attending Pittsburgh’s public schools, Harper knew he wanted to work in a field where he could give back. After spending several years with Brinks Inc., an armored truck service, he joined the police force in the ’70s and has never looked back.
While Harper is taking a firm approach to eradicating crime from Pittsburgh’s streets, he is also extending an offer to collaborate with anyone looking to proactively address the city’s problems. He hopes the community will step forward with him to fight the violence plaguing these neighborhoods.