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Pittsburgh acting police chief McLay hears concerns in Hill District

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Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Acting police Chief Cameron McLay engages with audience members at Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Hill District Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. McClay is a proponent of community and data-driven policing.
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Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Acting police Chief Cameron McLay chats with facilitator Tene Croom at Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Hill District Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. McClay is a proponent of community and data-driven policing.
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Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Acting police Chief Cameron McLay engages with audience members at Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Hill District Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. McClay is a proponent of community and data-driven policing.
ptrmclayhill3111114
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Acting police Chief Cameron McLay waits to be introduced at Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Hill District Monday, Nov. 10, 2014. McClay is a proponent of community and data-driven policing.

Questions about the future, rather than recriminations for the past, greeted Pittsburgh acting police Chief Cameron McLay in a Hill District church basement Monday night.

The hosts of the community event encouraged the roughly 40 attendees to remember McLay arrived in the city just two months ago.

“Tonight is simply about moving forward,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability.

Through written note cards, residents asked about preventing racial profiling, increasing the number of officers walking beats and plans for hiring more minority police officers.

McLay told the crowd his goal is to close the gap between the police and the community, and the gap between where the police department is now and where officers want it to be.

“The solution to closing both those gaps is through leadership,” McLay said.

McLay spoke at Bethel A.M.E Church on Webster Avenue near Morgan Street, a few blocks from the scene of a shooting in which a 17-year-old boy was gunned down when he and his mother left for school the morning of Oct. 8.

Repairing relationships with residents in the city’s violent neighborhoods is one of the challenges facing McLay. His goal is for community policing to become the norm, but to do that, he needs more officers on the streets.

He’s transferring at least eight detectives from headquarters to patrol and is increasing the number of community resource officers at each zone station from one to two. He acknowledged the moves as a “short-term fix,” however.

He also said in an interview with the Tribune-Review on Friday it’s possible as many as 47 officers, some with desk jobs, could move to the streets if their positions are filled by civilians.

“If we want the officers in the community to be doing community oriented policing, there have to be enough of them out there for each of them to have discretionary time,” McLay said. “Meaning time when they’re not running from one 911 call to the next. The reality is that if officers don’t have discretionary time, they can’t do community policing.”

Respect is the key in a successful community policing program, he said, and it’s also his focus as he looks inward to the relationships he’s developing with his officers.

He heads a department whose rank-and-file has been at odds with his new boss, Mayor Bill Peduto. Officers have bristled under criticism from the mayor on the perceived culture in the bureau after a federal investigation into police spending that led to prison time for former Chief Nate Harper.

“Billed as the guy from someplace else that’s going to ‘fix them,’ I fully expected to be met with almost 900 angry police officers,” McLay said. “The response has been phenomenal.”

McLay said he tells officers the truth, and that the mayor has not attempted to influence his decisions.

“I’ll tell them, I’ll acknowledge the pain, kind of like a community meeting, I know why you believe he doesn’t like you or why you’re mad at him,” McLay said. “But at the end of the day, this mayor supports me, and he supports you. I’ll ask the question, ‘Have you heard him say anything since I’ve been here that makes you feel like he doesn’t value you?’ and invariably the answer has been, ‘Well no.’ ”

Detective Jim Glick, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said he was impressed when McLay attended a police softball game a few days after he arrived in Pittsburgh, and his efforts to talk with officers are genuine.

“He is working tirelessly to build a bridge between the rank and file and himself,” Glick said, adding that McLay came to meet with officers at Zone 6 at 6 a.m. one day. “He literally is working nonstop to build a relationship with his officers, which everybody appreciates.”

Officers are interested in change, McLay said, and he thinks they are receptive to the community policing goals he has for the department.

“The reality is we have to take the extra time to explain, to pay respect to people by explaining why we do what we do,” McLay said. “Everyone understands respect. When people feel respected, they extend the courtesy. As police, it’s our job to go first.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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