The Costa Doing Business | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Costa Doing Business

Advice to a new mayor

Mayor Ravenstahl --

Usually, I find it presumptuous to give anyone job advice. I mean, if I were so smart, would I be working here? Then again, a lot of people think it's presumptuous for you to have your job, considering you're only 26.

I'm not one of those people. I've watched you in city council, and you acted at least as maturely as anyone else there. Faint praise, I know ... but I've been pulling for you since Mayor Bob O'Connor's death.

Now, with the resignation of police chief Dom Costa, you have a chance to live up to my hopes ... or to confirm your skeptics' fears.

In Costa, O'Connor bequeathed you both a problem and an opportunity. He was a controversial hire from the outset: There were reports that he'd played cowboy during a 2002 SWAT standoff in Homewood, for starters. And perhaps coincidentally, during Costa's tenure there have been murmurs about cowboy-like behavior elsewhere in the department. I've heard complaints about police "hot pursuit" tactics harming bystanders ... anger over a militaristic police presence during a spate of shootings in Homewood ... and, most recently, claims that a police officer pulled a gun on a 7-year-old girl riding in her mother's car. The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, which investigates claims of police misconduct, projects that 2006 will be a record year for complaints.

Maybe none of that is Costa's fault. Maybe there's no trend here. But back in the 1990s, similar allegations led to civil-rights lawsuits and federal oversight of the police department. Ask your predecessor, Tom Murphy, about the price he paid for dismissing complaints about police.

Want to avoid federal oversight? If you ask me -- and of course, you didn't -- you should get some outside perspective the easy way. Conduct a national job search for Costa's replacement.

Unfortunately, you've already announced a "strong preference to promote from within." Which makes sense, to some extent. The city's low crime rate suggests the commanders we have now are doing something right. And many locals must have been gratified to hear you say, "We will need a chief who knows Pittsburgh, its neighborhoods and its people."

Still, you've promised to bring fresh thinking to city government: Why not take every chance to hear new ideas during the interview process? If you hire, or at least look at, a candidate from outside the ranks, it will show you aren't bound to old ways of business.

The thing is, because you're 26, skeptics already see you as a pawn for the old boys O'Connor left behind. You didn't help yourself by appointing an O'Connor lieutenant, Dennis Regan, to be the city's public-safety director. In a lot of people's books, Regan is Old Boy No. 1 -- and now he'll be the new chief's boss.

So here's a tip: If you insist on hiring from within, and you want to prove you are your own man ... hire a woman as chief.

You certainly have enough qualified candidates to choose from: Roughly half the department's command staff is female -- the highest rate of female commanders in the country. (In fact, it's conspicuous that of the four candidates you identified by name last week, only one -- Director of Operations Regina McDonald -- was a woman.)

If you want to rein in the cowboys, it can't hurt to hire a few more girls. In a 2002 report titled "Equality Denied," the National Center for Women and Policing cited numerous studies suggesting that women "are often better at defusing potentially violent confrontations." Who knows? Maybe they'd even be less likely to pull a gun on a 7-year-old. And maybe a female police chief would find a way to hire more such officers.

Finally, in a decision like this I'm sure nothing could be further from your mind than political considerations. But just in case you were thinking of being elected to the mayor's office someday, you have a chance to do what Bob O'Connor only talked about: create a government that reflects Pittsburgh's diversity.

Just imagine the headlines: "Young mayor in old city appoints female chief in macho town." The New York Times eats that kind of thing up. You might even get back on Letterman.

And a final suggestion, even if you blow off the rest of my advice. If you do get back on Letterman, this time don't joke about cops "fixing" traffic tickets for celebrities, OK?

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