Chief on duty: Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay wants to change his force, and he knows just how he’s going to do it


Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, who announced his resignation on Friday, will work in his current post until Nov. 8. Pitt News File Photo

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

To a standing room only crowd in the Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay boldly and unapologetically declared Pittsburgh’s police force is broken.

Since he’s now been on the job for one year as of Sept. 15, McLay has already begun to implement his fixes, drawing the attention of other police departments around the country, like the Madison Police Department in Madison, Wisconsin, where he previously worked. In lecture hall 2017, McLay outlined problems with modern policing, such as the overuse of force, the problems with Pittsburgh’s police — namely a lack of self-accountability — and his plan to change how the Bureau operates. At the first lecture in Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems series of speakers, McLay laid out his plan to educate the city’s police officers and focus on community policing.

“I recognize that the institution of policing, if it is to be taken seriously, needed to look very carefully at what we do, how we do it, to listen to the community and be responsive to those changes,” McLay said.

McLay said he is committed to diversifying his police force. As it stands, about 17 percent of Pittsburgh’s police officers are black, whereas about 25 percent of Pittsburgh’s citizens are black, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In May, the Pittsburgh Police settled a $1.6 million lawsuit with the ACLU for discriminatory hiring practices. Of the 530 officers the police hired from 2001 to 2014, only 23 officers were black, the ACLU said.

McLay — who inherited the lawsuit and the mostly white police force when he took the position last year — said the fix must come from within.

“The root cause of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s [problems] was a failure of leadership,” McLay said. “We weren’t holding ourselves accountable for outcomes and the ways we do business.”

McLay said this meant Pittsburgh Police wasn’t analyzing how it interacted with citizens and pursued suspected criminals. In other words, the police weren’t asking themselves why they suspected who they were suspecting. Unconscious bias clouded the department.

McLay said unconscious bias with police can lead to police questioning and frequently pursuing people of color because police subconsciously assume they are criminals.

This creates a “crisis of legitimacy,” according to McLay.

During his talk, McLay outlined a rough schedule for procedural justice training which trains officers to be impartial and to implement fairness and justice and in dispute resolutions. McLay said he hopes to have officers begin training by March. Within the next two years, McLay said every officer will have undergone both procedural justice training and unconscious bias training.

McLay also said he wants to train all officers in crisis intervention so officers can better communicate with homeless and mentally ill citizens.

Since the War on Drugs in the 1990s, aggressive policing created a false narrative about both police and citizens. Citizens’ narrative of police became, “the cops hate us and mean us harm,” and the police’s narrative of citizens became “the community hates us and they condone the illegal actions of criminals,” McLay said.

Both are wrong, he said. On the police’s end, their mantra during the War on Drugs in the 1990s caused a false narrative, which was: Get in, get the gun, get the drugs, get the bad guys off the street.

“That brings up some interesting ethical concerns,” McLay said. “Police reform is community reform. It is social-justice reform. And we all must join in.”

Last December, McLay demonstrated what he meant. On New Year’s Eve, McLay was photographed holding a sign that read, “I pledge to challenge racism at work #EndWhiteSilence.” The photo went viral, and when McLay received backlash, he stood firm and didn’t back down, said Susan Yohe, chief diversity and inclusion officer at law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, PC, who introduced McLay.

“He didn’t go into appeasement mode,” Yohe, whose firm funded the talk, said.

McLay said his bureau has started using crime data to point a “laser focus” on specific neighborhoods, like Homewood, where crime and violence is high, to prevent crime from happening, rather than throwing a blanket over the whole city.

“But we have to be very mindful about the way we go into those areas. Very well-intended efforts to reduce crime and disorder can result in a driving down of the crime rate but also a driving down of community relations,” McLay said.

For Pitt, McLay said not much will change because the Pitt Police already have a good and fair relationship with his bureau.

Since McLay has been in his position, each zone of the police bureau uses Facebook and Twitter to connect with citizens and has begun hosting more community events, such as coffee with a cop, where citizens can chat and share concerns about their community with local police officers at coffee shops. Police have also increased bicycle patrols in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods.

“The mantra has changed from the ‘police are bad, the police are the problem’ to the ‘we like what you’re doing, but we’re going to hold you accountable,’” McLay said.

After the talk, George Weddington, a sociology graduate student at Pitt, said while McLay was transparent about the police’s failures, doing so was a “bottom line expectation.”

“The difficulty is not in pointing out the failures. The difficulty is in making sure the steps to fix the problems are in place,” Weddington said.

While he said he thinks McLay will fix Pittsburgh’s problems, he also wants him to open up a dialogue about power and control.

Penelope Miller, the coordinator of the Center on Race and Social Problems, said she thinks McLay will do just that.

“I feel very optimistic this chief is going to be able to improve community relations,” Miller said.

As an example, Miller said McLay should connect with community members, specifically young black men, to make tangible change, a task she thinks he can accomplish.

“He knows what needs to be done and understands the problems, and he understands the solutions,” she said.

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