PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Cameron McLay will take the reins of a police bureau in crisis, rocked by scandal that sent the last chief to jail, and suffering from strained community relations and a rising homicide rate.
On top of that, the rank and file is dispirited.
“I defiantly feel that moral is going to be an issue for the new chief coming in,” says Pittsburgh FOP President Howard McQuillan.
The bureau has been rudderless and the void in leadership has taken its toll.
McLay will be charged with lifting morale while improving minority relations, incidents like the arrest of Jordan Miles have built a wall between the police and the community.
“Here in Pittsburgh we’ve had a lot of issue around the use of force. Especially between police and African American youth, and hopefully, he’ll bring a new tone to that,” says Tim Stevens, of the B-PEP.
The strain is not unique to Pittsburgh, across the country – most glaringly in Ferguson, Missouri, there is a debate about the divide and what some see as the over-militarization of police.
Pittsburgh’s SWAT Team, the Special Weapons and Tactical Unit, was called out 251 times last year, almost triple from the 96 callouts five years ago.
“I’d be uncomfortable being in a situation with officers in those uniforms pointing their guns at you. It creates tension. It creates tension,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Mayor Peduto says the use of SWAT will be left up to McLay, but shares the concern.
“Only when an officer’s life is in danger should he be putting on military guard. A military job is to invade and defend. A police officers job is to protect and serve,” says Mayor Peduto.
Meanwhile, violent crime is increasing.
Homicides are way up this year, and one reason is the number of illegal guns on the street. This year, gun seizures are down, meaning more violent criminals are carrying illegal guns at the ready.
Rank and file police officers tell KDKA’s Andy Sheehan they have become less willing to confront someone suspected of carrying a gun for fear that the city doesn’t have their back. If the arrest goes poorly, you might end up disciplined or in court.
“The perception that we are going to be second guessed, that’s it’s a situation that can be made political may cause people to be less aggressive,” said McQuillan
Mayor Peduto says he’s counting on the new chief to improve training on correct arrest procedures while pairing older, experienced officers with younger ones.
“When you start to take those things into practice, officers can operate without the fear that actions will be taken against them,” says Mayor Peduto.
In short, McLay will have the task of ushering in a new style of policing, overseeing the implementation of community-oriented police – officers in each zone walking beats, gaining trust, but the gulf is wide.
Some 75 people witnessed a homicide in Northview Heights, but not one would speak with police because of that breakdown.
Only about 30 percent of the homicides this year have been cleared or solved, a new low.
“You work on that relationship, you build it until when crime occurs the community supplies that information, or even better, prevent that crime from every happening,” adds Mayor Peduto.
It’s a tall order. McLay takes over at a low point for the Pittsburgh Police, but it seems the only way from here is up.
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