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Pittsburgh chief McLay said he broke no rules in DNC appearance

| Wednesday, July 27, 2016, 10:57 a.m.
Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay speaks during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay never mentioned Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in his five-minute convention address Tuesday night, but a union leader says his appearance on stage in uniform is as good as any endorsement and violates bureau, city, state and federal code.

“If you think someone can go to the Democratic National Convention and give remarks and that's not a political function, you are an idiot,” said Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1.

McLay contended at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that he broke no city, bureau or federal code when he spoke at the convention, where Clinton had earlier that afternoon become the first woman to receive a major party nomination.

“I did not support any candidate. In fact, I went to great lengths to say nothing but what I intended to say,” McLay said. “There was no endorsing of any candidate — no endorsing of any particular objective.”

McLay said his flight and hotel accommodations were paid for by the Democrats, though he was not certain whether it was by the Clinton campaign or the Democratic National Committee. He said he wrote his own speech, though it was pared down by convention speech writers.

Pittsburgh city code reads: “No officer or employee of the Department of Police shall campaign for a candidate for any office or for a ballot issue while on duty, while wearing a uniform or while on city property. Nor may he/she identify himself/herself as an employee of the Department of Police.”

Violation can be grounds for dismissal.

Mayor Bill Peduto said before McLay accepted speaking at the Democrats' convention, they discussed parameters he had to stay within.

“No mention of either candidate's name or politics,” said Peduto, who is at the Philadelphia event in his role as a delegate.

Peduto said he did not read the speech ahead of time, and his only advice was to speak from the heart, “You are the best person to do this speech, just go out there and make Pittsburgh proud,” he said.

Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich declined to comment, and city Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge did not return requests for comment.

McLay said that in the aftermath of recent high-profile shootings both by police and of police, he felt conversations within the community were one-sided and very pointed toward police.

“If I've got to go to a convention on a national stage where no one can shut the mic off on me to get out that cops do a great job and deserve our support, that's what I'm going to do,” he said.

His convention speech acknowledged that communities of color have experienced disparate impacts of the justice system and said more work needs to be done to resolve “a crisis of trust.”

Peter M. Shane, an administrative law professor at Ohio State University and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Law School, said the Hatch Act and Pennsylvania law prohibit police officials from attempting to sway votes of subordinate officers.

He said the laws do not clearly prohibit an officer from appearing in uniform at a political event unless the event is held on U.S. government property, adding that he doubted McLay violated the law.

“I think it would be unlikely because I don't think his wearing the uniform would be regarded as his attempt to coerce subordinate officers,” Shane said.

Swartzwelder asked who gets to decide whether something is an endorsement or not, citing an incident last month in which Allegheny County officials requested that Donald Trump's campaign stop using a photo taken of Trump with several county police officers during a rally near Pittsburgh International Airport.

Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough said at the time that use of the photo suggested the officers supported Trump's candidacy, “which was not the case,” he said. No action was taken against the officers.

“If I stand outside the polls in uniform and hand out literature (on a candidate) — I don't say anything, just hand it out — is that supporting a candidate if there's no out-loud endorsement?” Swartzwelder said.

The mayor's spokesman, Tim McNulty, called Swartzwelder's comments political. Peduto's administration has butted heads with the police union since he took office in 2014, and the union has filed numerous state labor complaints over what FOP leaders called forced overtime at events such as the Pittsburgh Marathon and the Beyonce concert at Heinz Field in May.

“This is not about petty political squabbling by the FOP. This is about one of the most important issues facing the entire country right now: police community relations,” McNulty said. “He didn't utter a single political word.”

Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, a registered Democrat, spoke last week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Trump would eventually secure the party's nomination. Clarke, an outspoken supporter, endorsed Trump.

A spokeswoman for the Milwaukee County Executive said the sheriff does not answer to county officials, and there is nothing in the department's code of conduct explicitly banning political endorsements.

Megan Guza and Bob Bauder are Tribune-Review staff writers. Staff writer Salena Zito contributed.

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