Unless there is video footage of incoming Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay kicking a puppy and burning a gasoline-soaked Terrible Towel in the middle of Lambeau Field, the most significant appointment of Mayor Bill Peduto’s first year should have no problem sailing through city council’s approval process.
And even if clandestine footage surfaced of a bare-chested Mr. McLay swearing allegiance to the Green Bay Packers under a full moon while wearing a foam cheese wedge on his head, he should still get the job.
Though Mr. McLay hasn’t addressed the public, it is obvious from the testimony of the people who worked with him in Madison, Wis., that he’s the kind of law enforcement officer who cares about strengthening relations between cops and the communities they patrol, especially urban communities. Pittsburgh is in desperate need of such leadership at a time when our police department is becoming whiter, more alienated from the public with each controversy and more contemptuous of the idea that it is accountable to anyone outside its union.
Leaders of civil rights organizations who have dealt with Mr. McLay in Madison, as well as rank-and-file officers under his command before he retired earlier this year, speak highly of him even after decades of service in that town. That is a remarkable testimonial with no equivalent in these parts.
Paul Soglin, the mayor of Madison, was quoted in the Post-Gazette saying the following about Mr. McLay: “He understands the very simple concept that you can’t have a strong community without a police department that supports the community. He knows that the police department does not run the city.” He prefaced those remarks with the most important sentence in a testimonial: “Let me just tell you, I want him back.”
As a result of Mr. McLay’s hire, I’m 1,000 percent more optimistic about Pittsburgh’s chances of finally exiting an unsustainable status quo of suspicion and mutual contempt that has defined relations between the police and the public since the department emerged from a federal consent decree and a court order mandating a more diverse police force.
The response of Pittsburgh’s civil rights community to Mr. McLay’s appointment has been encouraging. Just because Mr. McLay isn’t African-American like the last chief, now sitting in federal prison for tax evasion and various other crimes, isn’t an issue for a constituency that has everything to gain from competent and inspiring leadership, whatever the chief’s melanin levels.
Because Mr. McLay isn’t from the “good ’ol boy” network that produced former Chief Nate Harper and many of his predecessors, he has an opportunity to break with the department’s most dysfunctional expectations and institute best practices that have worked elsewhere.
While he’s at it, he can also occupy the moral high ground without irony and ask for (and expect) greater cooperation from Pittsburgh’s black community in identifying those who would continue to hold those neighborhoods hostage to the nonsensical street ethic of “no snitching.”
This is a rare opportunity to form a partnership between law enforcement and ordinary citizens who believe effective policing doesn’t have to be brutal or rooted in an adversarial relationship with the community. With the new chief modeling a different way of relating to civilians, this new approach will eventually trickle down the ranks so that even the most truculent officer will either have to conform or move on to a job in the suburbs. This is what leadership by example is all about.
My only advice to Mr. McLay is that he contact the deputy U.S. marshal in the news this week, the 5-foot-5 woman who was sexually assaulted by a 6-foot-4 man while jogging along the North Shore. She chased the guy into a corner and neutralized the threat with a swift kick to his crotch after he tried to attack her again. Get her to teach a class at the Police Academy.
The creep got a trouncing, but didn’t get shot. If convicted and sent to prison, he will have years to contemplate the price of sexual assault, but at least he’ll still be alive.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.