With several holding back tears, about 75 residents joined Black community leaders and police personnel from across the city at the Kingsley Center, in East Liberty, to say goodbye and thank you to outgoing Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay, who announced his resignation three days earlier.
Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, who hosted the event, said she had to speak slowly so she didn’t burst into tears.
“I knew that if anything happened on his watch it would be taken care of, I knew we would not have to beg and plead to be treated like human beings,” she said. “His character is phenomenal. Thank you for being a phenomenal man and for being a law enforcement officer who is about dignity and respect.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Black Political Empowerment Project founder Tim Stevens who said he never expected to get teary-eyed over a policeman.
“I was profoundly sad when I heard he had resigned because I’ve been doing this four and half decades, and we finally got someone we can trust and he has to leave us,” said Stevens.
“But as you leave, be assured you have left behind a legacy for the Pittsburgh police to follow. Thank you for your leadership and thank you for your bravery.”
Vic Waczak, state director of the ACLU said he was stunned repeatedly by how different McLay was from other police chiefs, noting that at their first meeting he apologized for one of his officer’s wrongful arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson.
But another incident that was stunning—and pissed me off came when a spontaneous protest of Michael Vick was organized outside Heinz Field,” he said. “I sent him an email saying, you know, we don’t have a permit. I hope your guys will let them protest. He said, ‘they don’t need a permit—they have the 1st amendment.’ Chief, thank you. You’ve made a difference.”
McLay too was a bit teary-eyed at the show of support.
“This is overwhelming,” he said. “I was expecting thank you here you go, go away, but the amount of love and support is overwhelming, just fantastic. I’ll never forget this”
He said it’s amazing that it shows how little it takes for us to develop real human relations.
“All we have to do is listen to each other and be genuine and respectful. This community gets it, we don’t want to go back. My officers get it and they don’t want to go back either,” McLay continued.
“This is what every police officer wants when they go to their community, to be loved. It’s not lost on them—they are trained observers and they’ll realize, yeah, we’re on the right course and this is where you get the payback.”
When announcing his resignation at a Nov. 4 press conference in Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, McLay thanked the “angels” he said had supported his efforts since he arrived two years earlier. But he said he had now taken the job of rebuilding the bureau as far as he could, and it was time to move on.
“It’s time for me to pass the torch,” he said. “I have taken this as far as I can and I think I’ve developed a team of leaders who will take it to the next level. This is a great city and it has been an honor to serve you all. I’m sure when I look back on my career years from now, this will be my proudest achievement.”
When he came out of retirement to take the job at Peduto’s behest in 2014—becoming the first chief ever hired from outside the bureau—McLay had three main goals: to implement data-driven, community-oriented policing; to restore public trust through creating sound accountability systems; and to improve morale by restoring the integrity of police leadership systems.
Peduto said he has done all three.
“With the indictment and conviction of the former Chief, with community-police relations at risk, and morale among the rank-and-file at an all-time low, it required someone from the outside to get us to the point where we are today. Cam McLay was exactly the person we needed,” Peduto said.
“He was able to mend relations with the community, rebuild professionalism within the Bureau, and overhaul a command staff that is now promoted on merit rather than politics. The City is in debt to Cam for his contributions to the community, taking all the shots and criticisms that come with making changes, and putting the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police on a successful pathway that is a model for law enforcement agencies across the United States. We will continue on that pathway for years to come. We are so much closer together now because of this guy.”
Some of the bureau’s accomplishments under McLay’s leadership include:
•Being chosen to participate in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a three-year effort funded by the Department of Justice providing national expertise in community policing;
•Instituting bureau-wide on procedural justice and implicit bias, and
•Creating a Crime Analysis Unit that included civilian crime analysts, which developed enhanced crime mapping and analysis products and made them available to zone commanders for improved resource deployment and problem analysis.
McLay said the turmoil created by the Fraternal Order of Police “no confidence’ vote, and his appearance in uniform at the Democratic National Convention, had no bearing on his decision to step down.
“I had a chance to put out critical issues facing policing and that elevating professionalism can be a positive,” he said of the DNC appearance. “I regret wearing the uniform because what followed confused and lost a vital message.”
The only regret he had about his job here in Pittsburgh was his inability to diversify the force.
“There’s still a lot to do—especially will building diversity,” he said.
“A lot of efforts are on the right course, but not done.”
Keeping things on the right tract will fall to 24-year veteran Scott Schubert, 50, who will now serve as acting chief.
“I want to thank Chief McLay,” he said. “He did what needed to be done to make us all better, and we’re not going to waver from that vision.”
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