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Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay resigns

| Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, 10:06 a.m.

Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay's resignation Friday disappointed some Pittsburghers who praised the chief for using his two years in charge to ease animosity between the department and minorities.

McLay said he is leaving the 890-officer department because he has “accomplished what I can here.” He said he doesn't have another job and likely would return to Wisconsin to be with his family. He shrugged off notions that repeated disputes with the police union played a role in his decision, which he revealed a day after Mayor Bill Peduto told the Tribune-Review that he wanted McLay to address rumors about his impending departure.

“I think it's a sad day for Pittsburgh,” said Tim Stevens, a long-time activist for minority causes. “We had a police chief who had the sensitivity, the commitment and the passion to try and create a new day in community-police relations.”

Specifically, Stevens credited McLay with implementing training to reduce racial bias among officers and encouraging “community policing” in which officers interact more frequently with residents while on patrol. Stevens also praised a recent program to train police in the use of less-lethal weapons, such as shotguns that fire incapacitating bean bags.

Peduto and McLay made the announcement in the mayor's conference room in the City-County Building, Downtown, in front of a crowd of reporters who were given two hours' notice about the event.

“At this point, I earnestly believe that I have accomplished all that I am able to do,” McLay said. “I've made the decision that I'm going to be stepping aside to pursue other opportunities.”

Assistant Chief Scott Schubert, 50, of Brookline will serve as acting chief, Peduto said. McLay's last official day will be Dec. 4, but his last day at work, before he takes leave time, will be Tuesday, which is Election Day, he said.

McLay has battled with the police union and disagreed at times with Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, the union's president said, but McLay said that didn't factor into his decision to leave.

“Are there rumors about a lot of things around here? Absolutely there are,” McLay said. “Are there disagreements among professionals? Yeah, it happens all the time, but at the end of the day I'm not leaving because of any conflicts, nor am I leaving for any specific job.”

Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, who often has clashed with the chief, said Hissrich overruled McLay on several recent police promotions that the chief would not approve.

“My issues from the FOP perspective with the chief of police were regular violations of the contract,” Swartzwelder said. “He made, in my opinion, personal decisions as opposed to professional ones, and I had to appeal to the public safety director. He found the issues that we raised were valid, and he overruled the chief.”

Hissrich declined to comment but praised the chief for leading the department and making numerous improvements.

“The foundation created under his leadership will serve as a springboard for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to continue serving the public with honor, integrity, courage, respect and compassion,” he said.

Peduto said he sought a person who could reform the police department and found that person in McLay. He said the chief helped “heal the wounds” between police and black residents, brought integrity and merit promotions to a department tainted by scandal and political appointments and embraced technology as a crime-fighting method.

“We've had him for a little over two (years), and I would really love to have him for another year,” Peduto said. “We needed somebody — as Chief McLay called it, the wrecking-ball chief — to be able to come in to build reform. That helped to pave the way to where we are now with a data-driven police force, a community-relations focus of policing, of ethics and integrity that has taken away the politics that was a part of the bureau in the past.”

Peduto said Schubert, a 24-year department veteran, would serve as acting chief for 90 days.

“That will give Scott an opportunity to prove that he can be a police chief,” Peduto said, adding that Schubert will be hired permanently if he does well.

Schubert, who started as a patrolman in 1992, will receive a pay boost from his current $98,039 salary to $110,252, the same as McLay, once he assumes his new duties.

McLay, a former police captain in Madison, Wis., became chief in September 2014. Peduto wanted to hire an outsider — unheard of in a department accustomed to promoting from within — to improve the department's reputation after the resignation of former Chief Nate Harper, who was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for stealing public money and failing to file federal tax returns.

McLay had rough patches during his tenure, particularly with FOP members.

On Sept. 14, FOP members voted to approve a resolution that said officers had “no confidence” in McLay.

The union also criticized him for playing politics on the job when he gave a speech, in uniform, at the Democratic National Convention in Cleveland in July. McLay and Peduto have said the speech was not a political endorsement.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said she was saddened but not surprised at McLay's departure.

“This last year has been brutal for his internal relationship with the FOP,” she said. “I think it was just coming to the point where his philosophy was meeting a resistance that was just obstructive.”

Said McLay: “Like any agency undergoing major change, we have been having our growing pains, and we will continue to do so because change is hard.”

Staff writer Jeremy Boren contributed to this report. Bob Bauder and Megan Guza are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Bauder at bbauder@tribweb.com and Guza at mguza@tribweb.com.

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