Before he was elected mayor, I talked to Bill Peduto many times about the importance of hiring the right police chief. And many times he told me that while it was his priority, selecting a new chief had to be done the right way.
As his first term trudged along, I admit that I worried that the selection of a new chief was not really a priority. And I grew annoyed that the "New Pittsburgh" that Peduto had promised was being led by interim Chief Regina McDonald, who had been appointed by former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl after the resignation of former Chief Nate Harper.
Indeed, many other mayoral initiatives, and hires, would be announced before Cameron McLay was named interim chief in September and sworn in, in December. But since then, one thing has become crystal-clear: Cam McLay was worth the wait. That became obvious with a series of events in recent weeks.
In a Dec. 23 letter to the community, first published in The New Pittsburgh Courier, McLay announced that he was placing Officer Dave Derbish on desk duty until a federal investigation into the November 2012 Leon Ford shooting was complete. Derbish shot Ford following a traffic stop. Ford was acquitted of aggravated assault in September, while the jury failed to reach a decision on several other charges. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to try Ford again on those charges.
But throughout the whole ordeal, Derbish remained on the street, much to the displeasure of community activists, until McLay acted last month
"If we, the police, are to regain legitimacy, we must assure those calling for change that we hear and understand them, and are committed to police accountability," McLay wrote in the letter. "... Accountability is one of our core values, and we must respect the integrity of the outside investigation of our actions, honor the findings when they are determined, and, in the process, demonstrate to our communities of color that we hear and understand the pain."
Until that move by McLay, there had been no official actions taken by anyone in authority to assure the public that the shooting of Ford was being looked at.
In Ford's case, the only person facing legal troubles was the young man himself, who was detained for what seemed to be an exorbitant amount of time for an alleged moving violation. On a video recording, officers can be heard saying that they believed Ford was someone else and that he was lying about his identity. But the police were wrong about that. And a young man was left paralyzed, an officer was left on the street and the community was left wondering what in the hell was going on.
To his credit, McLay has begun answering the community's concerns. If that had been all he was up to, it would have been a nice start. But on New Year's Eve, the new chief was out and about in uniform Downtown, at First Night festivities. He stopped for a cup of coffee, began talking to some young protesters and had his picture taken with a sign that read: "I resolve to challenge racism @ work #endwhitesilence."
Police-union officials took immediate issue with McLay. Union president Howard McQuillan told KDKA that "The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist." It's no surprise that the union, which rarely seems to have an issue with officer conduct, would attack McLay for holding the sign. In years past, a riled-up union usually meant backpedaling by the administration and police brass. But not this time. Peduto stood by his chief and even tweeted out the hashtag: #IsupportChiefMcLay.
There are a lot of people who support Chief McLay right now. Some of them are folks who might have given up hope that there would ever be anyone in police leadership who understands that there are deep divides between the department and the African-American community. Don't get me wrong: I know that even among police, McLay is not alone in his beliefs. But because of the culture within the department, until he arrived we'd never really heard from those like-minded officers.
Hopefully, through McLay's leadership and guidance, those are the officers we're going to start hearing about on a regular basis — those that will help usher in change for the better.
"I am the Chief of Police for the City of Pittsburgh and all of its citizens," McLay said in response to the photo flap.
The police/community relationship in this city has long suffered under an apparent "us vs. them" volatility. But listen to his words and watch his actions and you'll see that McLay doesn't want this to be an "us" or "them" situation. He's pushing for "we" — everyone working together to make this situation better.
That's a plan we should all support.