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Confidence vote doesn't spell end for Pittsburgh Police Chief McLay

Megan Guza
| Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, 10:51 p.m.
Chief Cameron McLay answers questions during a media interview at the North Side headquarters of the Pittsburgh Police, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Chief Cameron McLay answers questions during a media interview at the North Side headquarters of the Pittsburgh Police, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014.

Union member pushback against Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay should be viewed as more of a political statement than a serious threat to police leadership, experts in police affairs said Thursday.

“They're political statements — they're non-binding,” said Jack Greene, a criminology professor at Northeastern University. “Certainly police chiefs have almost uniformly ridden out votes of no confidence, unless they've been criminally indicted themselves.”

About 60 percent of the eligible members of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 cast ballots Wednesday. Of the 459 who voted, 421 said they have no confidence in the chief. Sixteen indicated they do have confidence, and 22 abstained.

The landslide vote was the culmination of friction with McLay since nearly the moment he took over the department in September 2014. Union President Robert Swartzwelder attributed it to the chief's attitude and a variety of perceived contract violations.

The vote might not be as damning as it looks, according to Stephen Mastrofski, a criminology and law professor at George Mason University and director of the Center for Justice Leadership and Management.

“No doubt that when you have a union in a powerful union state, that's a challenge, but it doesn't necessarily mean death — particularly if the mayor is behind him,” Mastrofski said.

He said a lack of support from officers on its own could be a big blow to a police chief. “But if the mayor is behind him, and he has political support and doesn't have the feds jumping all over him, then he's in a pretty good situation,” Mastrofski said.

Mayor Bill Peduto has been vocal in his support for McLay throughout the chief's tenure.

“Reform is never easy in any organization, and we will continue to work with the men and women of the Police Bureau to strengthen morale,” Peduto said.

Greene said the notion of “reform” can spark conflict all on its own.

“Change is almost always at the crux of these types of conflicts,” he said. “Police chiefs find themselves up against the politics of unionism and the politics of reform.”

The vote is also not the first of its kind in Pittsburgh.

“It's part of what a chief is faced with when they accept the position of chief,” said former Chief Robert McNeilly, who led the department from 1996 to 2006 and endured a similar vote early in his term. “You just accept that and move on and accomplish what you need to do.”

In 1997, the union voted no confidence in McNeilly after voters approved a referendum creating the Citizen Police Review Board, which holds independent hearings on allegations of police misconduct.

“It's a common tactic used by some employees in some unions,” McNeilly said. “But when you're in a leadership position and have to make decisions that are difficult and sometimes not widely accepted — that's the result.”

The 1997 vote also came on the heels of a consent decree that placed the city police under federal oversight, the result of a federal lawsuit charging city police with widespread abuse and misconduct.

McLay echoed McNeilly when he spoke on the survey results Wednesday afternoon.

“You just keep right on doing what you're doing,” he said. “I've got a job to do and I'm going to finish doing it.

“Do I like it? No,” he said. “The metaphor I would draw is like in boxing or martial arts. It's like a body punch. It hurts. If you're in shape it doesn't really slow you down. It certainly doesn't take you out of the fight.”

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