Pittsburgh Police Chief Pressured To Resign After Calling For End To White Silence To Police Violence

Pittsburgh Police Chief Pressured To Resign After Calling For End To White Silence To Police Violence
Pittsburgh Police Chief Chief McLay.

AFRICANGLOBE – Hired as a reformer two years ago, Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay announced his resignation Friday, declaring that he accomplished everything he believes he can do in the role.

“I think I have done the job that I came to do. I think I have taken it as far as I can,” said Chief McLay, 59, who cited improvements in police accountability, data-driven policing and relationships with the community. “I think I’ve developed leaders ready to take it to the next level.”

A polarizing figure among union and activist groups, Chief McLay said Tuesday would be his last day on the job. He will remain on the city payroll until Dec. 4 while he uses accrued time off, he said during a press conference in the City-County Building.

He plans to return home to Wisconsin, where his family lives and where he was a police captain in Madison. His next professional moves are uncertain, Chief McLay said, although he vowed to “find other ways to continue to contribute.”

Standing at his side, Mayor Bill Peduto said he “really would love to have [the chief] for another year.” Mr. Peduto pledged the police would “double down” on Chief McLay’s priorities as the next chief, Scott Schubert, takes over beginning next week.

Tabbed by the outgoing chief, Chief Schubert, 50, of Brookline will ascend from assistant chief to acting chief for 90 days. That gives him the “opportunity to to prove that he can be a Pittsburgh police chief,” Mr. Peduto said. The top job pays $110,252 a year.

“The changes that Chief McLay has made are here to stay,” Mr. Peduto said. He pointed to a variety of initiatives and metrics, including a 51 percent decrease in lawsuits against police officers.

Total complaints against Pittsburgh police are down 42 percent over the last couple of years, according to the mayor. He also praised a restructuring of the violent crimes unit, a revised code of ethics and the addition of civilians to a crime analysis unit, among other changes.

Officer Robert Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, wasn’t so effusive. He said he heard from the Peduto administration about the leadership changes about 15 minutes before they were announced Friday morning.

Chief McLay “was probably very present with community groups, but he was not very present with police officers,” Officer Swartzwelder said. He said officers have “often told me, as the FOP president, that they’ve seen public safety Director [Wendell] Hissrich on numerous instances … and they don’t say the same thing about the chief.”

“I just think he had a narrative,” Officer Swartzwelder said. “When he came here, the police department was ‘corrupt.’ The police department was not corrupt. You had some problems at the top, but you did not have problems with the rank-and-file.”

The Pittsburgh police union voted in September that it had “no confidence” in Chief McLay. He said Friday that the vote did not influence his decision to leave. But he said that police chiefs who upend internal systems can have difficulty leading.

Such work sometimes “ruffles enough feathers and hurts enough feelings that really getting people to want to follow you becomes hard,” Chief McLay said at the press conference. “Did that calculate into my decision on who is best to lead the rebuilding phase? Yeah, I thought about it.”

The first outsider to lead the bureau in more than 150 years, he began working in Pittsburgh in September 2014. He arrived after former police Chief Nate Harper was sent to federal prison on charges that he failed to file federal income taxes and worked with others to steal from the police bureau.

When he was hired, Chief McLay said he was “drawn by the opportunity to make a difference. I recognize a community that desperately wants a stronger connection with its police, and a proud police force, rich in tradition, that wants to be valued and respected for their service and sacrifices.”

Supporters have since lauded his efforts to build ties with community groups. The bureau often publicizes events at which police officers have coffee with residents or play basketball or chess with them.

Under the chief’s tenure, the U.S. Department of Justice selected Pittsburgh to participate in a national program aimed at improving relationships between police and the community.

“I really am sad that he’s leaving,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the independent Citizen Police Review Board. “I think he brought, you know, a freshness of high-level intellectual and theoretical approaches to a very dark and dingy corner of Pittsburgh. And he was quite successful.

“He accomplished more in two years than I think anybody could have expected,” Ms. Pittinger said.

Still, some have pointed to crime statistics as a cause for concern. In 2014, the year the chief arrived, Pittsburgh had its highest homicide rate in six years. Chief McLay restructured the bureau’s homicide unit, but statistics provided during a news conference this fall showed that the number of killings in Pittsburgh this year was just barely below 2014 numbers.

“The city has a lot of issues. I regret that there wasn’t enough time or opportunity to work with the chief to address them,” said Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the Allegheny County district attorney.

As an example, he cited a lack of police visibility in Market Square. The DA’s office sent a team of investigators there, Mr. Zappala said, and 75 drug arrests were made over a five-week period. “And we could have made three times that many for nuisance crimes.

“There’s no question there are labor issues between the FOP and the mayor’s office,” Mr. Zappala said, referring to the police union. “[They] need to be addressed. Visibility is an issue. We need to have much more than we have.”

The police union clashed with the chief early on and continued to do so over the past two years, with the union at times accusing him of violating bureau rules. This summer, Mr. Swartzwelder criticized Chief McLay for speaking in uniform at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Although the chief did not verbally endorse a candidate, Officer Swartzwelder argued that the DNC was part of a political campaign and that the chief’s speech there in uniform was a violation of city code.

The city’s Office of Municipal Investigations conducted a probe at Chief McLay’s request. It determined that the chief did not violate local rules or bureau policies, although Ms. Pittinger has argued that he did break those standards.

In an earlier incident, Chief McLay was photographed holding a sign that read, “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #endwhitesilence.” The union president then, Officer Howard McQuillan, accused the chief of violating the bureau’s social media policy and “insinuating that we are now racist.”

State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, said the incident chipped away at officers’ confidence in Chief McLay, as well as some community support.

“I think Chief McLay left us with a lot of good ideas that we can work upon,” said Mr. Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief. “But maybe he wasn’t the person to institute those ideas.”

 

By: Liz Navratil And Adam Smeltz