Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto says new police chief's skills fit the job well
A former police captain from Wisconsin named to head Pittsburgh's force has the qualifications and temperament to mend broken relationships in the city's poorest neighborhoods and remake the department as a national model of professionalism, Mayor Bill Peduto said Tuesday.
Peduto named Cameron McLay of Madison, a leadership consultant for the Washington-based International Association of Chiefs of Police, to lead the 867-member Bureau of Police, pending City Council approval. He's thought to be the first chief chosen from outside the city, Peduto said, though McLay has ties to Pittsburgh.
“He met the criteria that were set forth by members of the community and the rank-and-file police themselves,” Peduto said.
McLay, 56, did not come to Pittsburgh for the announcement. No explanation for his absence was offered. A press release said only that McLay would be made available for questions later.
His family is from Squirrel Hill and Wilkinsburg, and he lived in Mt. Lebanon for three years as a youngster while his father worked for Alcoa. In a statement, McLay said he long has wanted to return.
“I am 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,” he said. “It is my job to close that gap. We, the police, are nothing but an extension of the communities we serve. Our role is to reduce crime, fear and disorder in all of those communities.”
McLay, who will be paid $109,160 annually, is expected to begin work on Sept. 15, taking over for acting Chief Regina McDonald. She took the job when former Chief Nate Harper stepped down in February 2013. Harper is serving 18 months in prison for pleading guilty to taking city money and failing to file income tax returns.
McDonald did not return messages seeking comment.
McLay must pass required Pennsylvania police Act 120 accreditation from the Municipal Police Officers' Education & Training Commission. It was not immediately clear if McLay has to pass accreditation before taking over as chief.
Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar said McLay's 35 years of experience in law enforcement and background as a police executive made him a top candidate, and his interview sealed the decision to hire him.
“When he talked about his vision, his passion for leadership, how he would instill and inspire the rank-and-file to respect him and leaders of the police department, quite frankly, was very compelling to me,” Bucar said. “You can't make that up, and this man during the interview came across as heartfelt.”
Peduto credited McLay with building a “ground-up” model of community-policing.
“His background looks great. We were hoping to get somebody that actually worked their way up through the ranks,” said Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “There's going to be obstacles with somebody coming in from the outside, not knowing the department or the topography of the city. We're willing to be here and help with the transition period. We want to have a relationship where we can work together.”
Madison police Officer Dan Frei, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, said he worked with McLay in SWAT and on patrol, and said McLay is a believer in the “Madison method” of policing.
“We're a fairly progressive department, so talking first is the thing,” Frei said. “I think he'll bring both sides — the softer side, and the more traditional side of law enforcement.”
Oversaw 60 officers in Madison
Madison residents said McLay's team of community officers developed relationships with residents that helped the Wisconsin city cut crime in its worst neighborhoods. The city's Northside, where McLay worked, is home to 22,500 of its wealthiest and poorest residents, according to Lauri Lee, president of the Northside Business Association. About 243,000 people live in Madison, the state capital, compared to nearly 306,000 in Pittsburgh.
“Back 20 years ago, before community police officers, there were a number of shootings,” Lee said. “We had a lot of gangs coming in from Chicago and some of the larger cities. I really saw a big difference in how they were able to bring cases to resolution and solve them because people felt comfortable talking with them.”
McLay attended community meetings, made himself available to residents, and wrote a column for a community newsletter.
“Under him, there was substantial community policing where officers would be in the neighborhoods and got to know people, instead of just riding along in cars,” said Madison Councilwoman Anita Weier. “People were sorry that he was leaving.”
The Madison police department had 449 officers in 2013, according to its annual report. McLay oversaw 55 to 60 officers, said former Chief Noble Wray, who retired last year. The city had five homicides in 2013, up from three in 2012; Pittsburgh had 46 homicides last year.
Success in building trust
McLay understood how to build trust with people and believed in community-policing, Wray said.
“He's a hard worker,” he said. “I can't think of any time an issue of ethics or integrity was called into question.”
Pittsburghers said McLay's resume is impressive, but reserved judgment. Recent high-profile clashes between officers and residents have heightened tension, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods.
“We need the leadership before we can start doing real work,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability.
“I think we need to give him the opportunity to succeed and present himself to the community at-large and the police force that he will be leading,” said Tim Stevens, a former NAACP president who chairs the Black Political Empowerment Project.
Peduto said he interviewed four Pittsburgh police officers and six out-of-town candidates that a search committee selected.
Sixty-seven people from across the country applied for the job, according to Talent City, a recruitment program that a group of Pittsburgh foundations established to help Peduto find top administrators. Peduto and staffers, including Bucar, met with police officers and residents for input on what they hoped to see from a chief.
Bob Bauder and Margaret Harding are Trib Total Media staff writers.