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October 1, 2015

Pgh chief’s Rx for fixing police-community relations

logo2“The reason that I’m here today,” Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Cameron McLay told a packed room in the School of Social Work’s Center for Race and Social Problems, “is I realized probably in the latest seven or eight years of my career that my organization was having a struggle … and my profession was in something of a crisis. We were experiencing a crisis of legitimacy.”

His talk, “Policing Reform, Community & Ethical Leadership” on Sept. 17 opened the center’s Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC fall speaker series just a few days after McLay’s first anniversary on the job.

McLay was introduced by Susan Yohe, Buchanan Ingersoll’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, who noted that the police leader had more than 30 years’ experience with the Madison, Wisconsin, force and had taught police supervision courses at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

McLay arrived here in 2014, she said, at “that moment when we just might have a shot at getting it right” in Pittsburgh’s police-community relations, police accountability and police hiring diversity.

While it may be too early to see a large impact from McLay’s leadership on the ground, Yohe noted a major change in attitude from previous police leaders. A few months after McLay took over here, he visited a coffee shop and talked to local activists about unconscious racial bias among police and community members. Then he posed for a photo with their sign that read, “I resolve to challenge racism at work. #endwhitesilence.” The photo was widely circulated on social media.

Some of his officers reportedly were upset at the photo, believing it was accusing the police of racism. But McLay didn’t back down and never apologized for his action, simply saying he would reach out to his officers about the subject. “Chief McLay sees problems as opportunities,” Yohe said, “because he sees what he is doing now is part of a long, long game.”

McLay called himself “a very serious student of organizational leadership and managing the change process.” He said he long ago realized that the communities most affected by police actions are those that are most frustrated with police practices.

Prior to his arrival, the attitude among Pittsburgh police too often was “we know how to be the cops, you get out of our way,” McLay said.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay.

When police note reported violent crimes by placing pins on a map, those pins mostly are in poor black communities and downtown areas. “Put the cops on the dots” — deploying them near previous crimes, and using reasonable suspicions to stop and frisk people — was the long-thought method of responding to such incidents. It took a while for McLay and his fellow cops to realize they needed to consult community leaders and residents about their crime prevention ideas.

While police still use crime maps, they also now are “making sure we maintain those relational lines of communications,” he said.

The No. 1 hindrance to police-community relations was what McLay called a “false narrative” that fueled distrust between the police and the community. He said too many community members were thinking, “The cops hate us. They’re racists. They mean us harm. If they really wanted to fix the problems that plague us, they could do so,” while police are thinking of the community: “They all hate us. They side with the criminals. They mean to do us harm.”

McLay stressed that the majority of police, in his experience, take seriously their pledge to act professionally, but he admitted that “respecting constitutional rights for all” is one part of the pledge police too often disregard.

While society’s problems don’t begin or end with police-community relations, he said, “we are society’s force agents … so we are the most obvious source of friction.

“The prescription for repairing what was broken,” he added, “was by restoring the integrity of the leadership system.”


McLay began to question police practices in the mid-1990s in Madison, when a crack cocaine epidemic brought open-air drug markets to this college town for the first time.

Freshly appointed to the local drug task force and not knowing what to do, McLay joined his fellow cops in continuing to patrol the neighborhoods where drugs were most prevalent. He recalled asking to expand patrols to the local university area, but his request was turned down.

In response to the epidemic, the police were concentrated in certain Madison neighborhoods, which made the residents feel as if they were under attack. “I remember being horribly perplexed, not knowing what we were doing wrong,” McLay said. So police initiated discussions with community leaders, who asked whether police knew what it felt like to be the targets of such patrols.

“It was an eye opener to realize we’ve got to come to a shared diagnosis” about what was needed to combat the drug traffic and how it should be done, McLay said. “We were causing a lot of collateral damage. Officers are trying to do the right thing but sometimes we get it horribly wrong.”

In fact, a 2013 report, “State of the Science, Implicit Bias” by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, found that Wisconsin, and Madison’s Dane County in particular, had the highest rate in the United States of black arrests and black traffic stops compared to black population levels.

Sure, there is some racism among cops, McLay said, but “I do believe that is not the predominant driver behind our problem.”

The top cause was unconscious bias, he discovered, based partly on the findings of Patricia Devine, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin. Her research showed that police who spent all their time in black neighborhoods arresting black people came unconsciously to associate being black with being a criminal. The reverse was true as well — African Americans who saw cops only as arresting officers stopped believing that police were there to protect and serve.

“All of this occurs at the sub-intentional level,” McLay said. However, training for police to overcome such biases now is available. “I went through this training and I was scared,” he said, because as an officer who trained fellow police in use-of-force parameters, McLay knew such training relied on officers’ reasonable judgments of threat levels. Their split-second judgments also must help them make the right decision about when to use voice, hands, pepper spray or anything else, up to and including their guns, to control a situation.

But what if their perceptions were unreasonable due to unconscious biases? McLay asked.

To get past such biases, police officers not only will need to become aware of such biases but also must experience more positive interactions in black neighborhoods, he said.

During the next two years, McLay said, all Pittsburgh police officers will receive training to become aware of and combat unconscious bias; will be asked to get to know community members better; and will receive training in dealing with social problems that historically have received decreased support from government agencies, such as homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse.

McLay had some familiarity with Pittsburgh before he accepted his new position: His family lived in Mt. Lebanon for a few years in the 1970s, and his mother lives there still. Researching Pittsburgh’s police department prior to his interview for the chief’s job last year, he realized “the root cause of the problems of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police … it had started operating as a closed system,” lacking accountability to the community. The department needed to concentrate on making neighborhoods safer, rather than increasing the number of arrests.

City officials apparently agreed with such an assessment, for soon after McLay was hired Mayor Bill Peduto asked him to create data-driven community policing and repair morale among police. “That one was tough,” he said of the latter task. He realized: “I need to disperse leadership throughout the organization, [which will] have people motivated by a common vision and aiming at a common goal” — an undertaking he has begun to accomplish, he said.

“I feel we are on the verge of something right,” he concluded, adding: “I’m pretty sure we’re going to need your help.”

—Marty Levine                

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 3

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