Police chief McNeilly's tenure saw wrenching changes

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly Jr. watches Mayor Tom Murphy during a press conference in August 2003 at which the mayor announced the city would lay off more than 100 police officers among 731 city employees being furloughed.
Click photo for larger image.

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau is 149 years old, but there may have been more significant changes in its makeup, operation and supervision during the past decade than at any time in its history.

Mayor Bob O'Connor's firing last week of Robert W. McNeilly Jr., whose tenure as police chief corresponded with this decade of change, suggested more changes may be on the way under the next chief, who is expected to be named by week's end. Mr. McNeilly said the week before Mr. O'Connor's inauguration that he had been told by the incoming mayor's advisers that he would not be kept on because "they wanted to go in another direction."

Just what that means is causing a stir inside and outside the bureau.

Will the new chief continue the policies and procedures instituted under a federal consent decree that is no longer is in effect, as Mr. McNeilly has done?

Will the new chief be a stickler for detail and discipline in the mold of Mr. McNeilly?

Will the new chief seek to beef up staffing, which has fallen from 1,170 officers when Mr. McNeilly took over in April 1996 to 869 as of Friday? If so, how could this be done, given the city's financial problems?

These questions about the future of the bureau, among others, were submitted to Mr. O'Connor by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but answers won't come for a while.

Dick Skrinjar, the mayor's spokesman, offered this response: "The mayor wants to get together with the new chief and the command staff and sit in a room, close the door and figure out with the experts how to improve the service and operation of the police department and how to make Pittsburgh America's safest city."

Among the leading contenders for chief is Penn Hills Public Safety Director Dominic J. Costa, a retired Pittsburgh police commander. But whoever the choice and whatever the policies the new administration adopts, there is no question that the new chief will take over a very different department than the one Mr. McNeilly inherited.

A week before Mr. McNeilly was promoted to police chief by former Mayor Tom Murphy, a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed alleging routine police abuse of their powers.

Mr. McNeilly, who had been a commander in the Hill District and whose wife was a commander on the North Side, disagreed but said he knew first-hand that much needed to be done to improve discipline, to weed out bad officers and to modernize regulations.

Mr. McNeilly hit the ground running. By November 1996, he had fired nine officers -- more firings in seven months than his predecessors had ordered in more than a decade.

He quickly altered some procedures and planned to ease in over five years other major changes, such as a new use-of-force policy, additional training, and an early warning system to spot troubled officers.

But he didn't have that luxury. In March 1997, the city entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, making the Pittsburgh police bureau the first major department subject to federal oversight.

Mr. McNeilly said in his last interview as chief that 90 percent of the changes called for in the decree mirrored his own plans. But the decree required so many changes in such a short period that the inevitable backlash by some officers was directed at the new chief who had to implement them.

Tensions within the department were exacerbated later that year when voters approved a referendum creating the Citizens Police Review Board, which holds hearings on police misconduct and can recommend disciplinary action. Some officers became so bitter about the new oversight that the Fraternal Order of Police voted "no confidence" in Mr. McNeilly's leadership.

"Any time you have a difficult situation and have to make tough decisions you just cannot please everybody," Mr. McNeilly said, noting that his "constituents" aren't just police officers, but members of the community and elected officials, as well.

Despite the difficulties in implementing the policies ordered under the consent decree, Mr. McNeilly said the end result was a better focused, better trained, better equipped police department, one that has gained a national reputation for using the "best practices" in law enforcement.

"There's no question about it," he said. "I think most people recognize that. You may have some old hard-liners who for personal agendas refuse to acknowledge that. Just about every supervisor and the officers can see there are a lot of good things in there.

"I think we've got a great reputation across the United States. I think the challenge for the next chief is to maintain that."

Vic Walczak, the Pennsylvania legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union who filed the federal lawsuit alleging misconduct, said the police bureau's culture has been greatly improved "by the consent decree and by having a police chief committed to implementing those requirements. We give McNeilly a lot of credit. He wasn't perfect but nobody's perfect.

"He brought the department into compliance with the consent decree faster than anyone thought possible. One of the things we have learned in doing a lot of institutional reform cases, in trying to change how an entire agency operates, is that no matter how good the court order is, if the director is not committed to making changes, it's not going to happen."

Pittsburgh's policies and procedures are now hailed as models in law enforcement, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that has worked for the U.S. Justice Department and police departments nationwide.

Mr. Wexler said he is well-acquainted with what occurred in Pittsburgh because the Murphy administration hired his group to conduct a nationwide search for a new chief before it tapped Mr. McNeilly, a forum board member.

"The Pittsburgh police department today is light years better than it was because it has put in place systems, policies and practices which not only have made it a better department but has made it recognized across the country as a model."

One frequently cited example of the department's "best practices" is a computerized early-warning system that analyzes all aspects of an officer's job performance so that hints of trouble can be detected and dealt with quickly. Officers doing exemplary work also can be rewarded with choice assignments or other benefits.

So advanced is this system that representatives of police departments from across the United States and other parts of the world have traveled to Pittsburgh to study it.

Mr. McNeilly credited the system with helping to reduce the city's crime rate to the lowest level in 40 years because it allows productive officers to be identified and put into key positions while those with problems can be flagged and dealt with accordingly.

Mr. Wexler said Mr. McNeilly's decision to vigorously enforce the consent decree was a difficult but necessary one that the former chief's long tenure helped to achieve.

He noted that while Mr. McNeilly served as chief for 10 years, the average tenure for major city police chiefs is about three years. Pittsburgh had four chiefs in the 10 years before Mr. McNeilly took over.

"He was the right guy at the right time in the right place to make a difference that will be felt for years to come," Mr. Wexler said. "The fact he encountered obstacles and challenges within the department should surprise no one who understands the hurdles in changing an organizational culture.

"For the next chief to decide to reverse those actions would raise eyebrows around the country and certainly within the Pittsburgh community."

Mr. Walczak already is raising his a bit.

"The only thing I've read is that Mayor O'Connor thinks the department is top-heavy and wants to streamline it. I read that to say there will be fewer supervisors out on the street. That's what got them into the problems 10 years ago," he said.

"Good management means knowing what officers are doing and proactively addressing problems and that requires a committed command staff. You need supervisors to make sure the street officers are doing what they should be doing. I have a real concern we're on a course to the bad old days."

Mr. Walczak lauded the department's success since 1996 in reducing the number and severity of citizen complaints under the consent decree. Officers now are perceived as more professional and trustworthy, which is essential in encouraging people to cooperate in criminal investigations, especially in minority communities, he said.

Elizabeth C. Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board, agreed. "[The consent decree] certainly did lead to a number of improved or additional policies and procedures that give the officers guidelines and standards they will be held to. It certainly was a very positive thing."

If anything, Ms. Pittinger said, the police bureau needs to become even more transparent to the community. It should, for example, make public the analyses of police actions generated by the early-warning system, without divulging the names of officers.

FOP President Michael Havens Jr. has a different take on Mr. McNeilly's record and on what the O'Connor administration should do now. His laundry list of issues includes staff shortages, low morale, declining response times, inadequate staff to deal with quality-of-life crimes like vandalism that can begin the decline of a neighborhood and what Mr. Havens describes as a history of excessive discipline for minor infractions during Mr. McNeilly's tenure.

"Morale is at rock bottom," Mr. Havens said. "We're not saying people don't need to be disciplined. We're saying people need to be disciplined using common sense."

Although Mr. McNeilly was seen by many in the bureau as a rigid disciplinarian, his methods were regarded by supporters as necessary to enforce the consent decree and to weed out problem officers.

"It takes that kind of chief to keep the street-level officers abiding by the rules," Mr. Walczak said. "The new chief needs to be somebody who is going to maintain control and is not afraid to upset the union. This is not about being anti-union or anti-cop but making sure those officers who don't follow the rules are corrected."

Mr. Havens said he did not fear that Mr. McNeilly's departure would lead to backsliding in keeping the department on the straight and narrow.

"It's not like any of these programs are going away," Mr. Havens said. "If all of a sudden a new mayor and new chief come in and scrap all of this, more than likely the Justice Department is going to come in and knock on their door and say 'Hey, what are you doing?' "

Pittsburgh is no longer under federal oversight. But Eric Holland, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, "If something should happen and we learn about it, well ..."

He left the thought hanging there, much as the future of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau remains suspended, awaiting its new chief.


Staff writer Jonathan D. Silver contributed. Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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