Gratitude, apprehension permeate sendoff for Pittsburgh police chief

Today is Cameron McLay’s last day on the job.

Sarah Anne Hughes / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

“This is way too much.”

When outgoing Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay said those words to community leaders and activists Monday evening, a woman in the crowd responded, “Not enough.”

That sense of gratitude permeated the sendoff, organized by the Alliance for Police Accountability, as did a palpable feeling of sadness and apprehension.

McLay announced last week that he’s leaving his post this month after two years. During that time, McLay made a high-profile speech about police reform at the Democratic National Convention, was publicly condemned by the union — most notably after he was photographed with a sign that said “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #endwhitesilence” — and instituted a series of changes that Mayor Bill Peduto and community leaders said have pushed the city forward.

“Activists were shedding tears about Chief McLay leaving,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. “I don’t know if his shoes can be filled. I’m hopeful we can continue down the path.”

McLay sought to reassure those gathered about the future and urged them to look past “labor management drama” to see the good officers who work for the Pittsburgh police department.

“Make no mistake about it,” Pittsburgh Police Assistant Chief Larry Scirotto told the group. “He’s promoted 80 percent of our current command staff.”

Today is his final day on the ground, though his last official day with the bureau is Dec. 4. Asst. Chief of Operations Scott Schubert will be acting chief for the next 90 days and may be made chief permanently after that, Peduto said last week.

Below are reactions from people who spoke Monday, as well as from one of the activists contacted by The Incline. Have something to add? Email us at [email protected] with the subject line “McLay.”

Brandi Fisher

“I myself was not hopeful that change would come,” Fisher said Monday.

But in two years, McLay showed “it is possible … to have a relationship with the police and the community that is not only positive, but that’s real.”

Fisher said that as a woman of faith, she believes God is in control of all of us.

“His resignation has shook my faith a little,” she said of McLay, “knowing he did not want to leave.”

With McLay as chief, Fisher said she had a “sense of peace,” an understanding that, were something to happen, “I knew we wouldn’t have to beg to be treated like human beings.”

The pushback McLay received from his own officers and the union, Fisher said, shows that Pittsburgh still has “a long way to go.”

“I am hoping that we can find this trust again.”

Dennis Henderson

Henderson, a teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School, was leaving a community meeting in 2013 when a police officer sped by in a cruiser. Henderson said “wow.” The white officer returned, and Henderson was arrested and spent 12 hours in jail. He eventually settled with the city.

McLay was named police chief shortly before the settlement was announced.

Henderson remembered meeting McLay for the first time after feeling the “cold shoulder” from the department. “I came in very suspect of you, sir.”

“I get that a lot,” McLay joked in reply.

“[McLay] apologized for what happened to me in an encounter with a Pittsburgh police officer,” Henderson said. “That spoke volumes.”

“I just wanted to say thank you for bringing a different mentality to the city when it comes to community relations.”

Vic Walczak

Walczak also remembers that first meeting between Henderson and McLay.

As legal director of ACLU of Pennsylvania, Walczak said he’s told clients for 30 years “I’m more likely to get you a million dollars than an apology.”

But when McLay told Henderson “what happened to you never should have happened,” Walczak was floored.

He was also surprised after he emailed the chief about a spontaneous protest outside Heinz Field. A small group of people were protesting the Steelers’ decision to sign Michael Vick, but they didn’t have a permit. Walczak said he was worried.

The chief replied, “They don’t need a permit. They have the First Amendment.”

“This was a remarkable leader,” Walczak said. “You have made a difference.”

Dustin Gibson

Gibson is a community organizer who focuses on disability justice and racial inequalities. A lot of the time that includes state violence and community policing relations, he told The Incline via email.

Gibson said he was disappointed that McLay was leaving, but not surprised.

“I think the rhetoric and the things that he says don’t sit well with people in Pittsburgh,” Gibson said, adding that McLay was willing to address racism, receive criticism from the community and modify actions in the department.

And McLay listened.

At a community policing relations meeting after officers were shot in Dallas this summer, Gibson said he and others expressed that they were upset because the group didn’t meet after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

McLay apologized for the historically racist treatment and acknowledged the group should have met earlier, according to Gibson. Things like that “go a long way,” Gibson said.

In that same meeting, Gibson said he told McLay that a closed door meeting wasn’t going to be enough and that people were still going to protest.

McLay didn’t stop the protest, and he even made sure to block off traffic and allowed the group to go where it wanted.

When the protesters wanted to go onto the parkway, McLay told them that was out of his jurisdiction and he couldn’t do anything to override the state police. Gibson said it was helpful that the chief told the group that because it’s more than they would have known otherwise.

“I know he received a lot of pushback,” Gibson said. “I’m nervous going forward that all the work myself and others did will be erased.”

MJ Slaby contributed reporting.