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A year in as Pittsburgh police chief, McLay optimistic

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, 10:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay speaks at a Press Club of Western Pennsylvania breakfast Wednesday at the Engineers' Society building, Downtown.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay speaks at a Press Club of Western Pennsylvania breakfast Wednesday at the Engineers' Society building, Downtown.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay speaks at a Press Club of Western Pennsylvania breakfast Wednesday at the Engineers' Society building, Downtown.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay speaks at a Press Club of Western Pennsylvania breakfast Wednesday at the Engineers' Society building, Downtown.

Pittsburgh was a pleasant surprise for police Chief Cameron McLay, who took over a department that had been wracked by corruption, low morale and fraught relationships with minority communities.

“Things were nowhere near as bad as I perceived... This is a way better place than most critics may realize,” said McLay on Wednesday, one year and a day after he started the job.

“When I got on the ground I discovered some really, really great things.”

Police were engaged with residents in their zones, motivated officers enjoyed their jobs, and there was a solid foundation of strong research and data analysis.

Those were also the three areas McLay was tasked with improving in Pittsburgh - and points of pride for the police force in Madison, Wis., where McLay spent 29 years prior to his Pittsburgh hiring.

McLay, 57, inherited the bureau in a year that saw homicides spike to a five-year high – 71 in 2014 compared to totals in the 50s the five previous years. McLay hopes his community-oriented approach will work to reduce homicides and improve the rate at which they're solved – the more people trust the police, he said, the more willing they will be to come forward with information.

“It's dangerous to report crime,” said Homewood community activist Celeste Taylor. “Chief McLay gets it. You have to understand where the community is at, and that really does involve a lot of being with the community, not just coming to one meeting.”

Homewood and its environs experienced the most violence last year: Zone 5, which includes Homewood, saw 27 of the city's 71 homicides.

Taylor called McLay's first year a good start and said she is optimistic about what he can continue to do.

“It's not just about having successful events, or even surviving a first year,” Taylor said. “It's about the long haul and the commitment.”

Elizabeth Pittinger, director of the Independent Citizens Police Review Board, noted that McLay's status as an outsider has given him a likely advantage.

“He's not beholden to anybody locally,” she said. “He's not carrying any baggage, and no one expects any favors from him. He's just here to do the job.”

Former police Chief Nate Harper pleaded guilty to stealing city funds and served 18-months in federal prison. In March 2014, a jury decided against excessive force charges in the case of Jordan Miles, a young black man who in 2010 was beaten during what supporters called an unprovoked arrest.

A month before McLay's arrival, race relations sprang to the forefront of the national discussion when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO.

McLay said those and other historical factors caused him to focus in the beginning on community relations.

“I saw that if we didn't rebuild those (relationships) very, very quickly, we were in great jeopardy here in Pittsburgh,” he said.

He discovered the foundations were strong.

McLay said everywhere he looked in the department, he saw “very ethically motivated people who desperately wanted to serve the community. I found pockets of outstanding community engagement all over the place. I saw great examples of officers working with members of the community to solve problems.

“Community policing is in the soul of this organization,” said McLay.

“I think he honestly believes what he says,” said Tim Stevens, president of the Black Political Empowerment Project.

Stevens noted that McLay reached out to him shortly after being named chief to discuss community trust and relationships.

“It wasn't a big deal,” Stevens said, “but it was a deal.”

McLay's vision will continue through at least the next three years: Pittsburgh earlier this year was one of six cities across the country chosen to take part in the Department of Justice's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder established the program last fall as part of the government's response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., and other communities, and the $4.75 million program will pay to assess relations between police and residents in each city and develop specific plans for improvement.

McLay said when he initially approached local federal officials, many said Pittsburgh “wasn't ready.” Officials in Washington, however, watched the changes made in McLay's first several months - saw “our manifest willingness to improve” - and selected Pittsburgh to be a part of the program.

Researchers from the project were in Pittsburgh this week speaking with McLay, police personnel and community leaders. McLay called the project his greatest accomplishment in his first years, not least because it will supply for free two normally very expensive things: quality surveys and top-notch training.

Pittinger noted that the reins have been loosened by the new department administration, which includes nearly all new command staff and assistant chiefs.

“They've let people be the police officers they wanted to be when they became cops,” she said. “They're relaxing without compromising public safety.”

McLay called the relationships two-way streets: people in the communities must be receptive as well. And so far, he said, they have been – to a surprising extent.

“It didn't take too terribly long to get to where now, the predominant thing I hear from the community – I hear it all over the city – is, ‘Chief, what do you need, and how can we help you?'” he said. “That's not normal. That's not happening every place else in this country.”

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