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.”

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“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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