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Pittsburgh's new police chief says change is on its way

| Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, 3:23 p.m.
Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's incoming Chief Cameron McLay speaks during a news conference in the mayor's conference room at the City County Building, Downtown on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.
Justin Merriman | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's incoming Chief Cameron McLay speaks during a news conference in the mayor's conference room at the City County Building, Downtown on Friday, Sept. 12, 2014.

Cameron McLay said that coming to Pittsburgh as the first police chief hired from outside the department has advantages and disadvantages.

“The greatest advantage I have ... is I'm not part of the culture,” he said. “I'll be able to provide insights they might not have seen.”

The downside: “fear and distrust” from people inside the department.

Wearing a dark suit and necktie, McLay, 56, made his first public appearance on Friday during a meeting with reporters. He vowed to improve integrity within the department that some have criticized for heavy-handed policing tactics, corruption and a lack of rapport with residents in some minority communities.

Former police Chief Nate Harper stepped down in February 2013 and pleaded guilty to stealing city funds. He's serving an 18-month prison sentence.

“The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police may have lost its legitimacy in the eyes of some of the communities that we serve, and the sad irony of this is the fact that it doesn't have to be this way,” McLay said. “We know a smarter way of policing. We know a better way of policing. We simply have to roll up our sleeves, be willing to adapt to the way that we deliver police services and be willing to change.”

Identifying issues

McLay plans to use data from internal and neighborhood surveys to identify problems and motivate change.

The chief said he would start at the top with leadership training. He hopes universities will help with data analysis and training to save the city money.

Effective leaders set the tone for the entire department, he said, and that tone will filter down to the rank and file. He believes that will build trust among residents.

“I will take the best care of the community by taking good care of my organization, and that means holding my supervisors and commanders accountable for that important work,” he said.

The former Madison, Wis., police captain and leadership consultant for the International Association of Chiefs of Police came off more as a college professor than a cop as he talked about using real-time data from police calls to the 911 center to establish crime-fighting strategies.

Mayor Bill Peduto and Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar were at McLay's side during the news conference, but police brass were absent. Acting Chief Regina McDonald and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson did not return messages seeking comment.

“I like his whole community-oriented policing, his leadership qualities,” said Richard Garland, a lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh's Community Violence Prevention Project, who served on a committee that recommended McLay and two other candidates for consideration as chief.

“He's a guy who I think is above reproach, and he has a vision,” Garland said.

Closing the gap

McLay said his first order of business will be visiting police stations and talking to officers about problems and how he can address them.

“When people feel valued and respected, they become re-energized, they become refocused on the values that brought them into policing in the first place,” he said.

“He recognizes there's a disconnect between the rank and file and the police administration, and there's a distrust between the community and rank and file and administration,” said Detective Jim Glick, vice president of the police union. “If he can bring those things in line, that's what his goal is.”

McLay said residents will play an important role in reducing crime.

“As chief of police, my job will be to close the gap between the community and the bureau of police,” he said.

He said he plans to resurrect the underfunded Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime.

Critics have said the program has not worked because police brass have refused to cooperate. McLay said that would change.

Walking the beat

David Lassman, a distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said one of his favorite tactics for new leaders is “leadership by walking around.”

“As a new leader, you have to spend a lot of time showing up in different places,” said Lassman, who teaches organizational culture and change.

New leaders often instill values that everyone can agree with as a way to start change, but must also live those values, he said.

McLay said he would hold himself accountable as well as police brass. He does not plan drastic changes unless change is warranted.

“I'm going to use my survey devices to help measure what's real, separate fact from fiction, and then and only then would we be contemplating changes,” said.

Rank-and-file officers should not interpret that as a slam against their personal integrity, he said.

“It's about the integrity of the leadership system that failed to meet the needs of the organization and develop them to serve effectively,” the chief said.

Restoring integrity

McLay is the right person to restore integrity to the police department, Peduto said.

“Pittsburgh needs a police chief, who: No. 1 and most importantly, can lead by example; two, create a new era of community policing; three, be able to utilize all technology to be able to reduce crime; and, four, be the kind of leader that the people can trust and the troops can respect,” Peduto said. “Pittsburgh, meet Cameron McLay.”

McLay said he plans to live in Squirrel Hill, where his mother and grandparents once lived, and start work on Monday by visiting police stations. He and his wife visited the city when he considered applying for the job.

“I love the changes that have occurred here,” the chief said. “It's cleaner. It's safer. I'm looking forward to calling this my home.”

His hiring is subject to confirmation by City Council. His salary will be $109,160 a year.

“Everything he's said has encouraged me,” said City Councilman Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze, who represents some of Pittsburgh's poorest and most crime-plagued neighborhoods. “I'm very optimistic he'll have a positive impact on the police force and helping to change the climate and priorities of the police force.”

Bob Bauder and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Bauder at 412-765-2312 or Reach Harding at 412-380-8518 or

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