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Pittsburgh Police Chief McLay has officers sign memo not to leak info

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay is introduced during a press conference at police headquarters discuss security for Friday's Light Up Night on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014.

A city administration that prides itself on transparency and openness said Wednesday it supports a message to police officers to zip their lips or face discipline.

Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay ordered officers and other police employees this week to sign a “memorandum of individual responsibility” in the presence of a supervisor promising not to share information. It says anyone caught disseminating such information could be terminated.

The memo defines official information as matters that are of a “sensitive, official, confidential or routine use,” according to a copy of the document the Trib obtained.

“My efforts are meant to keep good people honest and, hopefully, prevent disciplinary procedures for improper handling of information,” McLay said in a statement.

What kind of information is prohibited from release remains unclear, a point that drew a rebuke from police union officials.

“This thing is so broad, it’s meaningless,” said Bryan Campbell, attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. “I read it. I don’t understand it. How would I explain that to a policeman?”

Mayor Bill Peduto said the policy does not conflict with his promises of more openness in government.

“We want to remain transparent, but when it comes down to homicide investigations, gang activity and other things, there needs to be a discipline, there needs to be a protocol in place that’s followed by law about how information is distributed,” he said. “Otherwise, cases could be lost … and officers and civilians could be put in harm’s way. That has to take precedence.”

McLay said in the statement that the police department has been publicly criticized for leaks that damaged the integrity of investigations. He said he noticed such leaks after he became chief. Public safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said she could not provide examples of specific incidents that prompted the chief to issue the memorandum.

Peduto said McLay is setting new department rules in an attempt to “bring about order out of chaos.”

He said the department never had a policy addressing officers releasing information to the public. The written policy, he said, gives the city teeth to enforce it.

“What Chief McLay was doing is making sure everyone understands the proper protocol is also now the proper rules,” Peduto said. “That means officers that have information that would put people at risk need to go up the chain of command in order to disseminate that information.”

The mayor noted that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. last year criticized the city for information leaks in high-profile homicide cases, including the February slayings of sisters Sarah and Susan Wolfe in East Liberty.

“When information is being leaked, it puts people’s lives at jeopardy,” Peduto said. “It not only puts the public’s lives at jeopardy, but also those officers that are on the street as well. What Chief McLay is doing is making sure that safety comes before the ability of officers to break rank.”

McLay said a code of ethics Pittsburgh police adopted includes the line, “Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided in me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret, unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.”

Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said he plans to speak with the chief about his concerns with the memorandum.

“I can understand that being emphasized that (information on a criminal investigation) doesn’t need to be disseminated,” McQuillan said. “But just reading it, it’s very vague and open for interpretation. My concern is it could be used as a way to discipline people as a catch-all.”

Campbell, the union attorney, said he expects the document to have a chilling effect on the department. Officers have to sign it or possibly be disciplined, but Campbell said he thinks it could violate their First Amendment rights.

“I think they’re trying to address what they perceive as a problem,” Campbell said. “I think it can be addressed, and you do it specifically. To ask people to sign something so broad? No attorney would say somebody is doing that of their own free will.”

Peduto has made openness in government a goal.

Making good on a campaign promise, Peduto releases a public schedule of his daily activities as mayor. Though it includes numerous events from his day, some meetings don’t make it onto the schedule.

He has supported efforts to make more government information available online, such as permit data, pothole-filling schedules and snow plowing routes, and encouraged departments to distribute information to the public via social media.

Recently, Peduto promised to release some public data but has not delivered.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority late last month refused to identify for at least 30 days contributors of cash gifts Peduto gave to four city employees during an appearance on CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” Councilwoman Darlene Harris has repeatedly complained that the administration ignored her requests for a list of streets the city paved in 2014.

McLay on Wednesday voluntarily suspended his Twitter account and asked the Office of Municipal Investigations to examine his conduct amid a controversy about a photo that circulated in social media of him holding a sign vowing to “challenge racism at work.”

Police union officials said McLay’s decision to pose on New Year’s Eve with the sign, which included the hashtag #end white silence, raised “serious concerns” and suggested that city police officers are racist.

McLay apologized and said he hoped to move past the controversy, but it drew national media attention.

Margaret Harding and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or [email protected]. Bauder can be reached at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].

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