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A Controversial Police Chief's Parting Words With His Profession

Cameron McLay just resigned from his post as Pittsburgh’s police chief—right when urban policing is about to get a lot more interesting.

Cameron McLay at a news conference in Pittsburgh in September 2014. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Five days before law-and-order candidate Donald Trump was elected president, Cameron McLay resigned from his post as chief of the Pittsburgh police department. At that point, the Trump triumph was far from inevitable, but the tea leaves of a new tough-on-crime regime were astir.

The change was felt in New York City, in how cops responded to the fact that the police officers who killed Eric Garner might be held accountable. It could also be felt in Ferguson, Baltimore, Austin, and even within the FBI, along the same lines.

McLay got a taste of this two years ago, a few months after becoming chief, when he was photographed holding up a sign that read: “I RESOLVE TO CHALLENGE RACISM @WORK #END WHITE SILENCE.” The backlash from the local police union was immediate.  

With that furor came the expectation that McLay would change police culture in Pittsburgh. McLay was already looking for ways to, as he says, “elevate the police profession.” Doing that, he knew, required building trust with black communities—especially for a department that was one of the first entered into a consent decree with the federal government for its pattern of excessive force.

Two years later, McLay can hold up many signs of improvement within the Pittsburgh PD: a drop in crime across the city, along with a 42 percent decrease in complaints against police and a 51 percent decline in lawsuits against the department. But he lost his department’s support: In September, close to 60 percent of the police force voted “no confidence” in McLay. The publicly stated issues involved disagreements about overtime and off-duty work, but the vote was likely just as much about his focus on training in implicit racial bias, procedural justice, and non-lethal force. His chummy relationship with black community groups—an alliance police chiefs aren’t commonly known for—also seemed to reinforce a perception, crafted by Blue Lives Matter-types, that he valued African-American lives over police lives.

That’s the kind of feeling—that non-white lives are being helped at the expense of white lives—that just helped propel Donald Trump into the White House. McLay has now exited this discussion: He’s back at his home in Wisconsin with his wife, planning a long-put-off vacation. A new future for his profession is afoot, though, and it’s not necessarily the future that McLay and others like him were working toward. He says he hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he’ll continue to work in law enforcement. In the meantime, CityLab caught up with him by phone to collect his thoughts on what he’s learned—and where his field will be heading next.

What’s the future of policing under a Donald Trump administration going to look like?

I don’t know what to expect from Trump the president. What I know is that generally the Republicans have been very pro-police, so it could be a good thing from the standpoint of funding and support. My assertion is that the federal government needs to get more involved in helping to elevate the support given to the police profession.

I also recognize it could reflect the dialing back to an early version of policing. That would be a really, really bad thing. I guess I’m in a wait-and-see mode, but I believe that elevating the police profession is entirely apolitical.

When you say an “early version of policing” that would be “really, really bad,” how so?

A lot of those who are pushing back against police reform right now are doing so in a very defensive way, saying, “We don’t need to hold ourselves accountable to higher standards; we don’t need to reexamine how we use force; we’re quite perfect just the way we are.” That’s the pushback I’m referring to: the idea that the police determine what’s appropriate for policing rather than this more elevated discussion of looking at more research-based best practices. Or more meaningful accountability systems and more transparency. That’s the piece that might just get lost in the whole police reform movement—and you’ll notice I’m fairly careful not to talk about police reform, because that mistakenly creates the inference that the problem is the police and that they’re broken and need to be fixed. I don’t believe that at all.

You don’t think there’s anything wrong with police officers or departments themselves?

No, it’s not that there’s nothing wrong—there’s always room for improvement in any profession. Certainly in policing, there are a lot of exciting things happening with training in areas like unconscious bias and procedural justice, and lots of great advancements being made in how we use force and with less lethal technology. But those aren’t faults of the police. It’s simply [that] they’re recognizing that we can elevate the performance of the profession by improving the quality of their training and improving the way these organizations are led. It’s not that there’s nothing wrong with some police departments or some police officers. Of course there is.

But the problem is—and this is one of my favorite quotes from police chief Ed Flynn from Milwaukee, who said: “With all the disinvestment in social services and mental health, alcohol and drug treatment, it seems as if there’s no problem that’s so complex that it can’t be fixed by more policing training.” A lot of the problems left at the doorstep of the police are social issues, rather than problems with the police proper. We’re just that point of friction. [Policing is] a sub-system that has to be adjusted, improved, or fixed where necessary. But you can’t just fix that and think it will stay fixed. It won’t, because it’s just part of that larger system.

When you held that sign up about racism, did you know you’d get so much blowback?

Yeah, I knew it was provocative, and I knew it was throwing a gauntlet down to talk about something we don’t usually talk about. It was intentional. I knew it was picking a fight. That’s not the same, however, as me being fully cognizant of the extent to which it would hurt feelings. That did surprise me—the extent to which a statement of how we view each other and how we should treat one another could be perceived as accusatory about the police bureau. Because there was certainly nothing about police in that conversation nor on the sign. It was more of a commentary on human nature. So the extent to which that became a personal barrier towards effective relationships with some proportion of my membership did surprise me.

The “no confidence” vote from your fellow officers—how’d that make you feel?

To be frank with you, I fully expected it. When the vote of no confidence came in, I got a lot of phone calls and emails from other chiefs saying, “Welcome to the club,” and “Don’t worry, it happens to all of us.” I completely wasn’t surprised. The only thing that surprised me is that it took so long. I didn’t lose a whole lot of sleep over it.

Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Yes, absolutely. You have to. This is the challenge facing this nation, and from the standpoint of policing, we simply have to elevate the level of our thinking and recognize that biases based on social stereotypes can have an impact on our behavior. One of my first intentions coming to Pittsburgh was to bring implicit bias training to the police officers so they would come to understand that fact of human brain science and how brains work. So, yeah, I would absolutely do it again, because while it did create angst among some, the sad truth is, I think, it says more about them than it does about me.

But the collateral benefit of that is it sent a very powerful signal to my communities that I’m open to improving and am willing to take responsibility for the fact that we recognize these challenges and I’m going to work with them.

Sounds like the police chief in Austin, Texas, is experiencing a bit of this, too.

That situation was about an officer-involved shooting, and the chief had the courage to make a very difficult but appropriate decision to fire one of his employees who shot and killed an unarmed person under circumstances that just weren’t reasonable. What’s happening is some of his commanders apparently didn’t support that decision and were vocal with that. In any organization, you have to have the subordinate managers in lockstep with the direction and reinforcing the mission and vision of that leader. In the private sector, if the CEO finds out that the managers beneath are not flowing in the same direction or are speaking against, they’d be out of a job so fast their heads would spin. I’m shocked and dismayed for chiefs to realize that it’s somehow controversial to think that a chief would bring his commanders behind closed doors and make it perfectly clear that he expects them to be on board with his decisions, or to step down from their position.

That chief got a lot of blowback from his mayor and from other politicians, and that speaks to the plight of chiefs who are trying to make important changes in this country: They try to take a stand, and those above them react to the angst and cries of “our morale is bad,” or “our chief was mean to us” from the rank and file. Then all of a sudden chiefs find themselves out of work on quite a regular basis as they try to effect the changes they were hired to do.

It does highlight the precarious nature of police chiefs right now, and the almost schizophrenic relationship some elected officials and politicians have with their chiefs of police: They want change, but they want to make change without ruffling anybody’s feathers or without disrupting the morale of the membership. It’s quite simply not possible.

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