Tony Norman: Cameron McLay looks like the police chief Pittsburgh needs

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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: or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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