New Pittsburgh police chief, Cameron McLay, has a “passion for reform,” he told about two dozen Jewish community leaders — including rabbis, congregational executive directors, and organizational heads — who gathered last Thursday at Rodef Shalom Congregation for a lunchtime meeting with McLay.
City Councilmen Corey O’Connor and Dan Gilman were also in attendance at the 90-minute meeting, which was sponsored by Rodef Shalom in coordination with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Following his retirement as police captain of the Madison, Wis., force in October 2013, McLay went on to work as a consultant for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where he gained further experience in organizational leadership, he said.
McLay, 56, who joined the Pittsburgh force last September, replaced Regina McDonald, who had been acting police chief since the resignation of Nate Harper in early 2013. Soon after Harper’s resignation, he was indicted for corruption and tax evasion. He is currently serving an 18-month sentence in an Illinois federal prison.
Problems have since plagued the Pittsburgh police, including the threat of a second consent decree — under which the bureau operated from 1997 to 2005 after the Justice Department made allegations of a “pattern and practice” of police misconduct — and the consequent low morale among members of the force. When McLay saw that Pittsburgh was looking for a new chief of police, and began to research some of the issues facing the community and the police department, he realized he knew what needed to be done to solve the problems.
“I said to my wife, ‘I know what went wrong. I can fix this,’” he recounted.
McLay emphasized several objectives he intends to accomplish in his new role, including strengthening relationships with external constituents, building trust and restoring accountability, particularly in “communities of color.”
He plans to introduce “really robust training in understanding implicit bias,” he said, “and attributional judgment being made on both sides.”
McLay is impressed with the academic resources available in Pittsburgh, he said, and hopes to work with experts in crime analysis at Carnegie Mellon University determining best practices, although he noted that “most crimes” are down in Pittsburgh.
Measuring the relationship between the community and the police is an important tool in understanding the actual needs of the community, McLay said, and he will utilize funding available from the $4.75 million National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a U.S. Department of Justice initiative, for that purpose. Pittsburgh is one of six cities chosen to participate in that initiative, which will launch pilot site-specific plans to enhance procedural justice, reduce bias and support reconciliation in communities.
Although there are problems to rectify in the Pittsburgh force, McLay said, he has also found “some pleasant surprises” since his arrival here.
“This is a way better department than you realize,” he said, adding that he has “discovered pockets of excellence,” including many officers who are highly engaged with their communities.
The core value that resonates in both the police bureau, and in Pittsburgh itself, he observed, is “pride.” So, while low morale is plaguing the force, McLay is optimistic he can turn that around.
“A lot of those responsible for leadership failures are no longer with us,” he noted, although challenges, such as low wages, remain.
“The police agency’s greatest threat of corruption comes from the reliance on second and third jobs to make a living,” he said. “In my perfect world, we’d have enough police officers to staff the needs of this community without second and third jobs.”
McLay is keen on keeping the lines of communication open between his department and its constituents, and urges members of the Jewish community to be in touch to express any concerns.
“If your community has issues with us, call,” he told the Jewish leaders assembled. “We want to sustain the lines of communication.”
During a question-and-answer session, McLay addressed a concern raised by Gilman about security for Jews in communal structures such as synagogues during holiday worship services. The police chief emphasized that emergency preparedness was essential. Saying, “We need to have a plan,” he also admitted that he did not know if there was one in place.
“That is now on my to-do list,” he said. “To find out.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.