Pittsburgh Police Chief McLay Reflects Upon His First Year

Sep 15, 2015

“A whirlwind” is how Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay describes his first year in the position. McLay marked the one-year anniversary of being appointed to the post Sept. 15, 2015. 

McLay told Essential Pittsburgh he was hired with some specific objectives; Implement data-driven community-oriented policing, start to repair police-community relations, and improve moral while restoring faith in the bureau’s internal leadership systems.

McLay said he was greeted with a positive attitude when he went to a Fraternal Order of Police picnic in the city between the time he was named and his first day on the job.

“A lot of cops said, ‘Chief, were glad you’re here.  We’re better than this and we want to do better,’” said McLay.  “Where I expected resistance I’m finding partners in positive change.”

McLay has found a similar level of cooperation in the wider community.  “Where I expected the communities to be so distrustful that they would not want to have a relationship, here in Pittsburgh the mantra is ‘what can we do and how can we help?’”

McLay believes that spirit of cooperation comes from a great pride in the community and he has tried to use that shared pride as a starting point that can be leveraged.

“Things are going very well,” said McLay.

But not everything has been perfect.  McLay has had a few problems including an instance where a community member at a New Year’s Eve celebration downtown handed him a hand-made sign reading “I resolve to end racism @ work #End the silence” which he held while posing for a picture.  That picture went viral and caused consternation among many of his officers.  McLay said the best way to deal with any controversy is to have an open conversation so that all sides understand the situation.

McLay has also spent much of his first year trying to dive into the massive amounts of data that have been collected by the bureau in an effort to have the nearly 70 databases and numerous systems talk to each other and then get that information to the officers quickly.

“The goal is for us to be in the cutting edge of Predictive policing,” McLay said.  With the support of the research community, the foundation community and his own staff “we are on a good course.”

He estimates that about two-thirds of all homicides in the city fit a pattern and using the data will help prevent future cries and solve ones already committed.

McLay said the hardest part of the job so far has been rebuilding moral.  He said years of poor management, cronyism and sometimes-warranted attacks from the public and the media has worn down the officers.  He hopes to combat that with what he calls “Values driven not rules driven” management where “everyone is a leader.” 

McLay believes the world is watch how Pittsburgh responds.  “What do we want them to write about?” McLay asks, because people will be reading about it for the next 50 years.

Throughout the year McLay has been busy appearing at community meetings, including one at the WESA studios in October.  In general, McLay says he has been pleased with those meetings and was surprised that the first reaction from most community members disappointment rather than anger. 

“People needed to be heard, they needed to make that they knew that I understood what they were saying and that I was intending to react to those but once we gat past that stage it became extremely collaborative,” said McLay who believes his officers have also responded in a similar way and are engaging in better community policing already.

McLay is now working on the need to recruit a more diverse pool of officer candidates.  Much of the diversity in the force at this time is among the older officers and McLay fears he will lose that when they retire.  He has been out front recruit at all levels including among the youth.  He does not think another hiring quota is needed in the city.

“There are more than enough qualified candidates of color.”  He points to the US military’s ability to find recruits of color and female recruits as proof.  He also intends to find was to create a police bureau that is attractive to the top candidates that can go to other departments or the private sector.

His general assessment of his first year… Better than he expected.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.