Cameron McLay getting high marks after first year as Pittsburgh police chief | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Cameron McLay getting high marks after first year as Pittsburgh police chief

“This chief came in at a time when we needed an uplifting of our spirit.”

On Dec. 31, 2014, newly confirmed Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Cameron McLay walked into the Crazy Mocha coffee shop on Liberty Avenue. It was New Year’s Eve in Pittsburgh and Downtown was bustling with First Night celebrations. But the conversation among one group in the coffee shop was less festive. 

In the wake of recent police-brutality incidents across the country, members of the activism organization What’s Up?! Pittsburgh were talking about racial bias among police officers. McLay began talking with the activists and concluded the chat by posing with a sign that would launch him into an international conversation on police brutality and racism. 

“I resolve to challenge racism @ work. #endwhitesilence,” it read.

“I can’t be certain. I haven’t done a nationwide survey. But I just can’t believe that many police chiefs spent last New Year’s Eve in a coffee shop in dialogue with other patrons about unconscious bias,” says Susan Yohe, an attorney who serves as chief diversity and inclusion officer for Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney. “When the controversy erupted, Chief McLay did not back down. He did not go into appeasement mode, but said if he had to do it all over, he would allow himself to be photographed with the sign again.”

The incident was a defining moment in McLay’s first year as Pittsburgh police chief and was referenced by Yohe when she introduced the chief at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems speaker series on Sept. 17. 

The chief’s appearance at Pitt, where he spoke on the subject of “policing reform, community, and ethical leadership,” was one of several stops last week on an anniversary tour of sorts. On Sept. 15, he celebrated his one-year anniversary with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Since nearly the first day of his tenure, McLay has received rave reviews for his work to improve police-community relations and restore integrity to a police bureau that has been plagued by scandal and multiple allegations of excessive violence used against its citizenry.

“Not to put too much pressure on the chief,” says Yohe, “but the moment I believe we find ourselves in right now is that moment when we just might have a shot at getting it right. Right here in Pittsburgh, getting the job of policing right, getting police-community relations right, getting accountability right and getting the demographics of the police department right.” 

click to enlarge Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
Photo by Heather Mull
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay

But despite the high praise, problems in Pittsburgh law enforcement persist. The city is currently being rocked by a violent crimewave, the bureau is understaffed and it continues to lack diversity in its ranks. 

Some have blamed the chief for these issues, while others say they represent areas that are simply out of his control. But either way, at more than 365 days in, McLay’s cheerleaders are drowning out the quiet complaints of his naysayers. 

“I think what we’ve seen in the last year that he’s been here has been extraordinary,” says Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board. “In terms of reorganization, creating a new identity in the public perspective and keeping everyone safe, cops as well as the community, all of these things in the short time of a year are truly remarkable.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that when McLay talks about some of the new initiatives he’s brought to Pittsburgh he gets a gleam in his eye. During a Press Club of Western Pennsylvania breakfast appearance last week, he resembled a child on Christmas morning when recalling his efforts to get the bureau admitted into a federal community-policing initiative.

“It connects so strongly to most of the things I need to accomplish here,” McLay says. “There’s a lot of resources that have been brought to bear as a result of us being accepted. And what’s gratifying about it is it’s not something that was given. It’s something the community and we earned together. It was the recognition that we were making progress that garnered us the recognition.”

In March, as a result of McLay’s effort, Pittsburgh was selected as one of six cities to join a pilot program on improving police-community relations. 

And that’s not the only national initiative McLay is engaging his officers in. Under his directive, plans are also underway to implement the nationally recognized violence-reduction model, which first came to Pittsburgh in 2008, under the name The Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime.

“Before I even walked in the door, I looked at the pattern of violence here and I was absolutely convinced that that methodology was what was needed here,” says McLay. “And as I got in here and on the ground, that just simply reinforced my conviction that that’s the right thing to do. It’s worked for city after city that’s implemented it well.”

Over the next two years, as part of the national initiatives, Pittsburgh police officers will be trained in the area of implicit bias. This training has been proposed as a method for reducing racial profiling and police brutality.

“Am I claiming that there is no conscious racism in American policing today? No, I am not. I know it’s there. I do believe however that is not the predominant driver of our problem,” McLay said at Pitt last week. “All human beings create cognizant shortcuts. If a police officer works in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and everyone they arrest are young African-American males, after a while, bias will develop when they see a young African-American male.”

But despite the high-profile incidents of police brutality across the country this year, the chief’s tenure in Pittsburgh has been relatively quiet, leaving some to wonder how McLay will handle such incidents if they arrive.

“It’s inevitable. Even properly performed police work is ugly,” says McLay. “What I will do is make sure there is a fair, thorough and timely investigation. I will make sure I am as transparent with that process as the law and the union contract allows. And what I will hope is that we will have garnered enough trust in one another here in Pittsburgh that people will be willing to press ‘pause’ on judgment, and will give me the benefit of the doubt to let the investigation run its course.”

But some have worried whether discipline coming from McLay will stick in the face of the city’s arbitration process, which allows officers to appeal disciplinary actions. For the most part, McLay said he would reserve judgment on the process until he has a case go through it.

“The arbitrations process has certainly in the past made it difficult to take meaningful disciplinary action against people who do not deserve to be police officers. People who have been guilty of misconduct at times have found themselves being brought back by arbitrators,” says McLay. “I’m trying to make sure we are very good at our investigations and are handling those serious discipline cases with the goal that when I fire somebody, they stay fired.”

Critical complaints of the chief center around two issues: staffing and morale. And now these issues are having a direct impact on each other, critics say. The number of officers on the force today is approximately 840, or 60 fewer than the 900 that officials say is optimal.

“My concern has always been the number of officers on the police force and morale,” says Pittsburgh City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. “I think it’s difficult to maintain morale when you’re making a lot of changes, and when officers are working 15-hour days and going from call to call.”

“We’re down police officers and there’s only one class of officers coming on,” says City Councilor Darlene Harris. “We’re going to start the year with a lot of officers retiring in January and February, and we’re really going to see our numbers go down.”

Concerns about staffing were echoed by Howard McQuillan, a Zone 4 police officer and the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Like Kail-Smith and Harris, McQuillan praised McLay’s community involvement, but says low morale among rank-and-file officers remains a problem. 

“We have people in the academy, but they’re not in the streets,” McQuillan says. “We have more people doing community-oriented things now, but this is a time when we have fewer officers than ever before.”

McQuillan was complimentary of some of the changes McLay is making, like instituting career tracks for new recruits coming into the bureau, but he said his members expected the chief to address some of the internal leadership issues that have plagued the bureau in the past.

“He’s promoted some good people. We’re being offered training in different areas,” McQuillan says. “But I’m hoping over time we can start working on the internal issues.”

Despite McLay’s presence in the media and in the community, McQuillan says the chief also needs to increase his presence in front of officers, especially when it comes to communicating his vision for community policing.

“The complaints that I get are that he’s not out in front of the membership that much,” says McQuillan. “He has a vision but it hasn’t been communicated with the rank-and-file. We needed to have someone come in and work on their behalf for morale. They were hoping someone would come in and work on a lot of the internal issues we have, but with a chief coming in from the outside, it can be a challenge.”

For his part, when it comes to staffing, McLay says the bureau is working to increase capacity at its training facilities in an effort to run more concurrent recruit classes through the program.

On Sept. 15, members of Pittsburgh’s African-American community and others from anti-violence and social-services organizations gathered in the Hill District to address the recent spate of shootings throughout the city. The room at Freedom Unlimited Inc. on Wylie Avenue was packed wall-to-wall with activists, members of the media and the loved ones of shooting victims.

Many had gathered in the same space in years past to address violence in their communities, but this time the rhetoric was different. Instead of placing blame on the police force, several speakers at the press conference expressed a new sense of solidarity with the city’s officers.

“As many of us in this room move to ensure that the rights of our citizens are protected,” said Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, “and that the relationship, particularly between the police and the African-American community and communities of color is improved, we must be diligent to also foster both respect from the police to our community and to foster respect from our community to the police.”

Stevens was one of the first to meet with McLay when he arrived in Pittsburgh. And actions like that are part of the reason for the community’s new attitude toward the police force, Stevens says.

click to enlarge Chief Cameron McLay at the Reclaim MLK march in January
Chief Cameron McLay at the Reclaim MLK march in January

“I think he was consciously sending a signal —‘I want to reach out to people in the community,’” says Stevens. “The best PR pill that has been delivered to Pittsburgh in some time has been the appointment of Cameron McLay as police chief. This chief came in at a time when we needed an uplifting of our spirit, both locally in terms of negative things that happened within our bureau, and the national stories of police brutality that were in our face on a daily basis.”

One of McLay’s first steps as the new chief was to face a local high-profile incident of alleged police brutality. In December, McLay put officer David Derbish, who shot and paralyzed 21-year-old Leon Ford during a 2012 traffic stop, on desk duty while the U.S. Justice Department reviewed the shooting. Ford was acquitted of criminal charges.

“From our point of view and the work we do, the chief has been responsive,” says Citizens Police Review Board’s Pittinger, whose organization recommended the action. “He’s treated the board’s findings and recommendations in cases with respect. Some of us that have been around this police community relations thing for a very long time, you almost end up like you’ve been battered over the years. You’re skeptical, you’re cynical. This past year has been much more relaxed.” 

Initiatives to improve police community relations have included increased transparency, a stronger presence on social media and community-engagement activities, such as “Coffee with a Cop” which have given city residents a chance to meet and talk with the commander of their zone at local coffee shops.

“I think we’ve seen officers being much more spontaneous in engaging with people in their patrol sectors. The way they’re using social media has certainly changed their approachability. It’s generally speaking just become a much more relaxed and more approachable bureau of police,” says Pittinger. “Community-oriented policing has to be an agency-wide philosophy. It has to be embraced in practice by everybody. It doesn’t work in isolation. I think we’re seeing it becoming rooted in Pittsburgh and it’s been a long time coming.”

Pittinger says the chief has also helped restore faith in the police bureau that was destroyed after several scandals like that of former police chief Nathan Harper, who was indicted by a federal grand jury, and in October 2013, pled guilty to directing more than $70,000 in public funds to an unauthorized credit-union account.

“It wasn’t a healthy situation for years. You had the handful of officers who probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and [who] kept repeating the same misconduct over and over again, and it was OK because somebody liked them,” says Pittinger. “This guy comes in without favoritism to let everyone know that this is a bureau of police in service to the entire city of Pittsburgh, not just [for] some and not targeting some, they’re here for everyone.”

And changes are occurring in the racial makeup of the police force itself, an area that has long troubled the black community. The latest recruit class to enter the academy has six African-American cadets. But McLay doesn’t take credit for the new recruits and cautions that the gains in diversity aren’t enough.  

“We’ve seen modest improvements in the recruiting numbers for this latest hiring surge, but quite honestly not enough to make me smile,” McLay says. “It’s a modest improvement at best that has me banging the drum internally saying we have to do something different. And do something different we shall.”

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