Textbox Section

PIIN urges continued work on police-community relations for Pittsburgh

In response to Police Chief Cameron McLay’s resignation, and in support of the important work he did to bridge the divide between the police and the community, the leaders of our Public Safety Task Force wrote the following Opinion Editorial, published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

When Mayor Bill Peduto hired former police Chief Cameron McLay two years ago, it had been just a couple of short months since the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City. Across the nation, people were waking up to the reality that people of color are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than whites. Many were finally questioning how police officers operate in communities of color and the disparate treatment to which people of color are subjected.

Here in Pittsburgh, relations between law enforcement and the community were similarly tense, and Mr. Peduto made the prudent decision to hire a reform-minded chief of police with experience in community policing.

Chief McLay began his service in Pittsburgh with the goal of increasing transparency and accountability and healing the fraught relationship between communities of color and the police force. He has now ended his service having made significant progress.

In 2015, at a “Marches to Measurables” public meeting of 600 Pittsburghers sponsored by the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Chief McLay committed to:

  • Promote better relationships between the police and the community;
  • Increase police training on implicit bias, racial reconciliation and procedural justice;
  • Maintain a diverse police force;
  • Promote data collection and the use of body cameras for greater police accountability.

Chief McLay worked hard to fulfill these commitments. He forged new relationships with community partners and emphasized the importance of not only reducing violence but also respecting the community. As a result of his work, much of the force received implicit bias training and relations between the community and the police began to improve. Gun violence declined in the city, and we now have meaningful data on officers’ use of force from 2010-2015.

Again and again, Chief McLay demonstrated his willingness and desire to bring communities and officers together, through his actions and his words. However, as he was fond of saying, change is hard. The recent “no confidence” vote held by the Fraternal Order of Police showed that many Pittsburgh police officers were not in tune with the chief’s leadership or efforts. And the fact is, it takes more than two years to undo a long history of tense relations.

That is why we must follow Chief McLay’s advice to stay the course. We need to continue strengthening the relationships between community organizations and the police, and continue the shift toward community policing. Our city can’t afford to backslide into an us-vs.-them relationship between the police and the citizens they are sworn to protect. We have to work together to protect all residents equally, to value black and brown lives, and to hold police accountable for addressing community needs and concerns.

To his credit, interim police Chief Scott Schubert has said he does not plan to change course and will continue the community-policing model. We hope that remains the case if he stays on as chief and that he keeps walking the path to better police-community relations with us.

There also is room for additional reform that Chief McLay was not able to accomplish in his short tenure. We must continue to diversify the police force so that it better reflects the community it serves. And body cameras remain an important accountability tool. We would like to see their usage expanded — though we recognize that current state law makes such an expansion difficult.

As people of faith and partners in a network of congregations across the city, we remain committed to positive police-community relations and stand ready to work with Chief Schubert in continuing the good work started by Chief McLay. We hope the rest of the city and the rank-and-file officers of the police force join us in this challenging, essential work. Change is hard, but it is not impossible.