Chief McLay addresses photo controversy in Carrick
Chooses Carrick Overbrook as his block watch visit
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay says he regrets not communicating better to his staff after he was photographed with a sign stating, “I Resolve to Challenge Racism at Work: #EndWhiteSilence.” The photo went viral on the Internet and drew the ire of the police union president, who said it gave the impression that Mr. McLay thinks his officers are racist.
Yet, Chief McLay says, “Do I regret having taken that picture? You know, I do not...We exist to speak out for injustice.”
The police chief spoke at length about the incident as he discussed community policing and civic engagement with about 80 residents at Carrick-Overbrook’s Block Watch meeting.
The photo was taken when Mr. McLay was patrolling downtown on New Year›s Eve. He stepped into a coffee shop where a group of activists began speaking with him about racism. They asked him to hold a sign they›d made. Mr. McLay obliged and the photo of the chief, broadly smiling with the “#EndWhiteSilence” sign, circulated in national and international news.
Chief McLay says he and the activists were not talking specifically about racism within policing, but about racism in all facets of community life. But in the wake of the fatal shooting of a police officer, and several unrelated cases of black men losing their lives at the hands of police, Mr. McLay had stepped into a hornet’s nest.
“Our current chief of police (is) insinuating that we are now racist, merely by the color of our skin and the nature of our profession,» Mr. McQuillan wrote in an e-mail to Chief McClay that was quoted in news reports. “I say enough is enough!”
While Mr. McLay stopped short of apologizing, he says he made a “huge, huge, huge mistake.”
“I didn’t connect the dots,” he says. “I didn’t realize that some of my officers with whom I didn’t have a relationship yet could see something like that and think that these (women who had drawn the #EndWhiteSilence sign) were anti-police protestors. That’s my mistake.
“If I had it do over again, I would have gone to the e-mail right away and said, ‘Just FYI, if you see this, this is what it means….’ Do I blame anyone for looking that and thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ No. Because police, in our society now, are under attack. We’re being made the bad guys. Sometimes every now and then we’ve got things we need to be held accountable for. Absolutely police accountability is important. An awful lot though is completely and very, very, very unfair.”
The issue gets to the heart of the intention of the Carrick-Overbrook Block Watch—to develop close bonds with the community and the police to stop crime. And Mr. McLay repeatedly expressed his appreciation for those who attend the meeting from the community, as well as lauding the work within the police department particularly in Zone 3.
He publicly praised newly named Zone 3 Commander Larry Scirotto, a Mt. Washington resident, as well as Community Police Officer Christine Luffey. Both officers are popular with the block watch crowd. Each month Officer Luffey delivers a report on crime in the community and helps residents resolve problems, and Commander Scirotto frequently attends as well to answer questions.
In the last month, Officer Luffey reported, police arrested people in the 500 block of Horning Street on prostitution charges. In another location, officers recovered $119,000 in cash and seized and removed marijuana after residents. Ms. Luffey credited Block Watch members for providing the information leading to those arrests.
Despite this, Chief McLay and others say crime is declining.
And, he says, “This is a far far better police department than people realize. The one failure I have seen here is you can have pockets of excellence like this, and not institutionalize it throughout the operation.”
Mr. McLay was hired to lead the police force last year, in the first year of Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration. Previous police chief Nate Harper had resigned in 2013 amidst an investigation into conspiring to misuse public monies, and tax evasion, for which he was later convicted. The Pittsburgh police force overall has faced scrutiny from the NAACP, as well as from local groups, for the lack of minorities on the police force and the handling of the arrests of black men.