Is Ellwood City standoff about power, race or both?


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ELLWOOD CITY -- A borough police officer congratulated his boss, Richard McDonald, the day after council unanimously reaffirmed him as head of the police department, countering an attempt by Mayor Don Clyde to strip him of his duties.

The officer noted that council's strong support of the first black member of the borough police department, an action cheered by an overflow crowd, had occurred on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"It's kind of poetic, don't you think?" the officer said.

Mr. McDonald, 38, was touched that someone other than he and his wife had made the connection.


Audio
The following are edited excerpts of interviews with Ellwood City Mayor Don Clyde and Chief of Operations Richard McDonald:

A former Pittsburgh homicide detective and a special agent for the state attorney general's office, Mr. McDonald in May had become the first black on the police force in a town where fewer than 1 percent of the 8,700 residents are African American. And it was a homecoming of sorts -- his great-great grandmother was one of town's first black residents.

In the battle with Mr. Clyde, who berated him, tried to get rid of him and used racist slurs in front of him, Mr. McDonald says he was bolstered by the white officers, white council members and white residents who supported him.

It's poetic, indeed, Mr. McDonald thought.

And yet, as much as things change, the more they stay the same.

Mr. Clyde, 76, who admits to using racial epithets but denies being a racist, said despite council's action, Mr. McDonald has no role in the police department at all.

"I relieved him of his authority," said Mr. Clyde. "My order still stands. I haven't changed it."

He said council's action was just part of a "vendetta" against him that he is battling with a civil suit. And, he said, he's contemplating taking further action regarding Mr. McDonald and council.

It's politics, indeed, Mr. Clyde admitted.

A matter of certification

Ellwood City had offered Mr. McDonald the job as chief of the department of 11 full-time and three part-time officers with the understanding that he would receive state certification as a police officer.

He had lost the certification after being inactive for two years due to a back injury from a car accident he had while working for the attorney general's office. Without the certification, he could not carry a gun, make arrests or wear a uniform, but he could still perform the administrative duties of a chief.

Late last year, he received a letter from the state agency in charge of certification informing him that it was denying his application because it considered his injury a permanent disability. He told council he planned to appeal.

Mr. Clyde seized upon the information by posting a notice in the police department that indicated he had relieved Mr. McDonald of his duties and that they'd be taken over by Lt. David Kingston.

Responding to the confusion, council at its meeting last week changed Mr. McDonald's title from police chief to chief of operations and considers the issue now moot.

From the beginning, Mr. McDonald knew that Mr. Clyde had opposed his hiring and that he wanted Lt. Kingston to head the department. Despite that, Mr. McDonald thought they could work together.

Then, after only about a week on the job, they had a meeting that eight months later still rankles Mr. McDonald: He characterizes it as a session where the mayor tried to intimidate him by using the vilest of racial epithets -- the N word -- to make his point.

"He said, 'We use the word here and we use it a lot, so you're going to hear it and that's something you need to get used to,' " Mr. McDonald recalled. "I'm sitting here in shock. I'm thinking, 'You're going to tell me you use that word ... and I'm supposed to get on board with that?'

"My response was, 'Look, Mayor, I treat people with respect and I expect to be treated with respect. I don't want to hear that word and I don't expect to hear that word."

Mr. Clyde confirmed the discussion occurred.

"It was not meant to be derogatory toward him in any way, shape or form," Mr. Clyde said last week, adding that Mr. McDonald laughed and said he had been around police departments and heard the word before. Mr. McDonald denies that he laughed or said anything of the sort.

As for use of the word, Mr. Clyde said, "it possibly can be [a racist term] but not really. I'm from the old school. It was a word that was commonly used when I grew up. It referred mostly to all blacks and it didn't mean good [or] bad.

"I was making him aware that should he be in the other room and overhear it that it's not meant toward him," he said. "I was trying to make him feel at home, to be a nice guy."

A battle of wills

Born and raised in Ellwood City, Mr. Clyde is the divorced father of two daughters and grandfather of six. In the 1990s, he was appointed to an unexpired council term, but other than that, he had never held office until two years ago, preferring instead to work behind the scenes as a Democratic committeeman.

He has no law enforcement background but said his authority over the police department is contained in Section 1121 of the state's Borough Code, which reads in part, "The mayor of the borough shall have full charge and control of the chief of police and police force..."

He said he doesn't want to run the department but only wants to oversee "generally the workings of it."

Council, however, wanted a professional in charge, and its members were impressed with Mr. McDonald's resume. In 1999, while a homicide detective, he was named Pittsburgh Police Officer of the Year. The next year, he was among 20 Pittsburgh-area federal, state and local law enforcement officers who received outstanding-performance awards from a group called the Law Enforcement Agency Directors of Western Pennsylvania, whose members include the top officials of law-enforcement agencies across the region.

Married and the father of two daughters, he'll receive a degree in psychology in June from the University of Pittsburgh.

He acknowledges the mayor is the civilian head of the department but said Mr. Clyde had tried to take far too large a role in day-to-day operations by assigning personnel, issuing directives and having access to the evidence locker and department armory. With council's approval, Mr. McDonald had the locks changed.

"What the mayor is supposed to be is the liaison between the department and council, taking care of all of the political actions and leaving the police department free of all politics. The police chief is supposed to run the police department," Mr. McDonald said.

Mr. Clyde accused Mr. McDonald of usurping his authority.

"When [he] came here, within a week he was cutting me completely out. I didn't even know what was going on in the department," the mayor said. "I want the knowledge of what's happening."

Three weeks into Mr. McDonald's tenure, Mr. Clyde ordered that new cameras installed on two police cars be turned on at all times. Mr. McDonald told him the cameras were meant to be used only when a police car's light bar and siren were activated. He said a policy should be devised.

The men got into a heated argument that ended when Mr. McDonald slammed his hand down on Mr. Clyde's desk, cracking the glass desk cover.

"I hate to use the term racist, but I guess that's what it's come down to," Mr. McDonald said. "I guess the mayor thought I'd come in here and just be a lackey. That's not what I'm here for, I'm here to do a job. When I came here and saw some things were not correct, I spoke up."

In August, to clarify who was responsible for running the department, council approved a resolution that spelled out 24 responsibilities for the police chief. The mayor vetoed the ordinance but council overrode the veto. Eventually, Mr. Clyde filed suit, claiming council was usurping his responsibilities. That suit is pending.

Modernizing the department

Since taking the job, Mr. McDonald has implemented new ways of storing and collecting evidence, begun rewriting the policy and procedure manual, changed the use-of-force policy, written policies for use of cruiser cameras and Tasers. He also instituted an anonymous-tip line. Officer reports and payroll are now computerized.

When police couldn't get enough evidence to arrest a business owner for dealing in stolen goods, police cited him for illegal cigarette sales and called in building and code enforcement officers, who shut down the business. Drug-law enforcement has been stepped up, and police routinely answer some minor calls that may have been ignored in the past, Mr. McDonald said.

The public has rallied behind Mr. McDonald, said borough Manager Dom Viccari.

"It's actually a struggle between a mayor who wants power over a police department and a very qualified individual, a professional with a good background in police work. That's really what it is," Mr. Viccari said.

Patti Kuhn, owner of Posies By Patti floral shop, is among those who praise the work Mr. McDonald has done in a short time, and she commended council for its support of him.

"We can walk up and down street and people don't feel threatened or scared anymore. A visible drug presence on Main Street is gone. You feel very, very safe. That wasn't the feeling a year ago," she said.

"The mayor is embarrassing to me. We have nothing but good things to say about the chief."

Mr. McDonald said he plans to build upon the improvements in public safety, but Mr. Clyde discounts claims that the chief had anything to do with them. He did commend him as "a very good PR man."

"The picture they're painting of me is an old son-of-a-bitch who's out of control," he said of his foes. "I am an old son-of-a-bitch who's a street fighter. I don't roll over easy."

And he dismissed petitions that have circulated in support of Mr. McDonald and calling for his removal from office.

"I'm here for two years and maybe more. Who knows, I may run again."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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