New Pittsburgh police chief has reputation as a strong, candid leader
Madison, Wis., recalls his community focus
September 3, 2014 12:00 AM
Cameron McLay is a former police captain in Madison, Wis.
By Liz Navratil and Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Madison, Wis., Mayor Paul Soglin learned that a retired police captain from his area had been nominated as the new Pittsburgh police chief, he had one thought: “Let me just tell you, I want him back.”
During the 30 years that Cameron McLay, 56, worked in the department about an hour from Milwaukee, he earned a reputation as a candid leader with a knack for building strong relationships with residents.
“He understands the very simple concept that you can’t have a strong community without a police department that supports the community,” Mr. Soglin said. “He knows that the police department does not run the city.”
Mr. McLay joined the Madison police department in 1984, after working as an officer at his alma mater, Indiana University, and as a police trainer at Madison Area Technical College, according to his resume.
From 2005 until his retirement this year, Mr. McLay oversaw Madison’s Northern District police station, which covered a few of the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, according to its mayor.
Karen Bassler, executive director of the Northside Planning Council in Madison, said Mr. McLay occasionally surprised her by showing up at local community meetings unannounced.
“He would just show up to hear what was going on, just sort of get the pulse of the community,” Ms. Bassler said.
She recalled one time when a young girl was hit by a speeding car and the Northern District’s community officer worked to find funding for traffic control devices and to get a group together to paint speed bumps.
“I truly attribute that to Cam’s leadership,” she said.
Madison is smaller than Pittsburgh, with a population of about 240,000, compared with Pittsburgh’s 305,000 at the time of the last census. Its crime rate is also different. Mr. Soglin said Madison typically has four to seven homicides a year. Pittsburgh officials announced earlier this year that they had seen an uptick in killings, recording more than 40 by the middle of the summer.
Some recalled that Mr. McLay met with residents after a killing in his district’s Vera Court area.
“When there is a homicide, it really stands out and there is concern,” Mr. Soglin said. “The first questions people ask are, is the general public at risk here or was this a very specific, isolated event involving the victim and the assailant. These are the kinds of things that Cam will address.”
Within the Madison department, Mr. McLay earned a reputation as someone who could have “courageous conversations” in public and within the agency to build confidence in the police, said retired Chief Noble Wray, who joined the force with Mr. McLay.
“I am more than confident. I think he’ll do a wonderful job,” said Mr. Wray, who is now president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. “He’s a consensus builder. He does reach out and try to bring everyone along.”
Mr. Soglin described Mr. McLay as a supervisor who was just as comfortable getting into a patrol car with a rookie as he was with a sergeant or lieutenant with 20 years of experience. Department spokesman Joel DeSpain described him as a “disciple of community-based, problem-solving policing.”
“That’s sort of what the city of Madison is known for,” Mr. DeSpain said. “He’s someone who is part and parcel of that philosophy.”
That philosophy is known in law enforcement circles across the country and tends to take slightly different forms in different cities.
“Madison, Wis., is quite a different city than the city of Pittsburgh,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board. “I don’t know what they go through in the course of a day, but the demographic is different.”
She said she felt selecting an outsider with experience in community policing was “a wonderful opportunity for some fresh air in the bureau.”
Mr. Soglin said of Mr. McLay, “You’re getting a really outstanding police chief — one who understands community, neighborhoods, and is a working police officer.”
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