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Pittsburgh Council on Track to Reform Police Detail Fee that Led to Slush Fund

Noah Brode/90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council has given preliminary approval to legislation that would divert an administrative fee for off-duty police details into a special trust fund, cleaning up a process that led to the February slush fund scandal and the ouster of Police Chief Nathan Harper.

Under a bill from Council President Darlene Harris, the city would finally codify a fee to companies that hire Pittsburgh police officers for special event duties.

That fee would now be 10 percent of officers' hourly wages. At today's rates, the city's administrative fee would rise from the current $3.85 to about $4, covering the companies' use of police equipment and the city's potential legal liability.

Deputy Police Chief Paul Donaldson said he supports the new fee level, but he won't guarantee that it will cover all of the city's possible liability.

"It could wipe out the whole fund, everything that we collect in two or three or four or five years, if there's one judgment against a police officer," Donaldson said. He added that other cities charge administrative fees totaling up to 25 percent of officers' secondary detail wages.

A second bill from Council Public Safety Chair Theresa Smith would create a Police Secondary Employment Trust Fund in which to deposit the administrative fee, to be overseen by the City Controller.

Previously, the Bureau of Police received the administrative fee payments directly and lumped them in with the officers' off-duty wages.

Chief Harper and others in the bureau allegedly took advantage of that process by using the revenue from the administrative fee for personal purposes.

A third bill would pay $10,000 to a group of lawyers, headed by former Washington County District Attorney Steven Toprani, to study the city's policies regarding police secondary details and make recommendations for reform.

The three bills were preliminarily passed through council on Wednesday with only one dissenting voice for the first two pieces, that of Councilman Patrick Dowd.

Dowd said he thinks the city should not reform the administrative fee process until the Toprani investigation is finished. The councilman added that he's not sure he supports the notion of the city offering secondary details.

"I, for one, do not want to privatize the police force," Dowd said. "That's what this is. This is a vote to privatize the police force and send them out to protect some, and it's at the expense of the all, of the majority."

While several other council members acknowledged that Dowd brought up valid concerns, they also stressed the necessity of short-term action on an issue that has brought disgrace to the police force.

"We know that there's an immediate need to make sure that these funds are going to the appropriate department and being handled in the most appropriate way," Smith said. "We are having meetings, and we are talking about secondary employment, and everything's on the table."

To that end, the council passed a compromise amendment from Councilman Daniel Lavelle that would require council to revisit the administrative fee measures exactly one year after the legislation would be passed.

The three bills are up for final approval on Tuesday.

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