First Steps Forward: Repairing Broken Trust

Police Chief Cameron McLay of Pittsburgh
Police Chief Cameron McLay of Pittsburgh

I don’t know how many police chiefs across the country are openly communicating with their communities of color but they should be.

I have argued in this weblog that eventually the police leadership of this country must apologize for being part of a system that has contributed to the oppression of poor people and especially those of color. I know it will be a long, but needed, process.

I realize that before this happens there may be many small steps that will have to be taken, I know the idea of apology is repugnant to many police officers, At the same time, I know this nation will never be able to live up to its values until we do — and, yes, I expect police to take the first step and demonstrate the courage and integrity of which I know they are capable.

One of those first (and important) steps was recently taken by police chief Cameron McLay of Pittsburgh. Below is his recent letter of to the citizens of Pittsburgh community which was first published in the “New Pittsburgh Courier.”

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“All across the nation, the trust gap between police and many of our communities of color has reached a crisis state. In Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer shoots unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York, unarmed, 43-year-old Eric Garner dies as a result of a struggle with police. Cleveland police officers shoot and kill 12-year-old Tamir Rice who is armed with a toy gun. The list goes on. The uncomfortable common thread, of course, is the officers are White and the victims are Black. Police and the criminal justice system in this country are facing a crisis of confidence.
“Here in Pittsburgh, we too have had our incidents, and the public trust is in jeopardy. If we, the police, are to regain legitimacy, we must assure those calling for change that we hear and understand them, and are committed to police accountability.

“Some of those calling for police accountability locally tell me they are not being heard. There has been a chorus calling for the officer involved in the Leon Ford incident to be placed on administrative duties pending completion of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Some perceive our unwillingness to do so as evidence of corruption of our accountability.

“The assassination of two officers in New York now has me extremely concerned about the potential for similar violence and for the safety of our officers. The incidents in Ferguson and New York highlight how tragic the outcomes can become if police lose legitimacy and the public trust becomes too badly damaged.

“The truth is we have heard and we do understand. Weeks ago, recognizing the pain his presence was causing the public, our officer agreed to move to a different part of the city and to work in a plain clothes capacity with limited public contact, and I respect his willingness to have done so.

“At this point, however, for the integrity of the Police Bureau, I need to make this formal. Until the U.S. Department of Justice investigation is complete, our officer has been assigned to desk duty. He is not being so assigned for punitive reasons. Accountability is one of our core values, and we must respect the integrity of the outside investigation of our actions, honor the findings when they are determined, and, in the process, demonstrate to our communities of color that we hear and understand the pain.

“Now the question remains, what are we going to do, Pittsburgh? Police work is often not pretty. Officers must arrest violators. Violators often resist, sometimes violently.

“When the next ugly incident happens, will we be willing to withhold judgment and control our emotions long enough to give each other the benefit of the doubt? Are we going to work together toward reconciliation? Are we going to work on listening to one another with the intention of compassionate understanding?

“I have faith in us. I think we will.

“In the Police Bureau, we are deeply committed to improving the quality of our relationships with our community members, and improving integrity of our accountability systems. We are creating an Office of Professional Standards that will work closely with the Office of Municipal Investigations, and are conducting thorough audits of all of our accountability systems. We will be conducting a thorough audit of our police training, to make certain all training, including use of force training, includes a component of ethical decision making. We must never lose sight of our ethical standards of conduct as we perform our difficult and, at times, thankless job.

“In other words, I am making sure we live our core values: Accountability, Integrity and Respect.

“The truth is, we have the power to choose our reactions to challenging circumstances. I have faith here in Pittsburgh we will choose wisely.” — Cameron S. McLay, Chief of Police, City of Pittsburgh

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Here is an early reply from the Human Rights Alliance of Pittsburgh

Dear Editor:

We are submitting this letter from the Human Rights City Alliance regarding new chief of police Cameron McLay, the work of HRCA and our commitment to work with him in efforts to build the relationship between police and our communities and what needs to be done to serve all of our residents properly.

We first would like to offer our congratulations to Cameron McLay on becoming the new chief of the police here in Pittsburgh. We would also like to wish him well in his efforts to rebuild the public’s trust in our police force.

In 2011, our City Council passed the Human Rights City Proclamation that made Pittsburgh the 5th Human Rights City in the United States. Yet little has been done to implement the Proclamation. In response to this lack of action, the Human Rights City Alliance has brought together residents and organizations from around the region to advocate for changes that will make Pittsburgh a true Human Rights City.

A high priority is improving the work of our police force and enhancing its representativeness and responsiveness to the needs of residents. Considering the department’s poor track record in regard to racial discrimination and excessive use of force, we are encouraged by Chief McLay’s record of leadership and we encourage him in implementing the reforms needed to make the force responsive to residents’ needs.

Along with other members of the Human Rights City Alliance, we look forward to working with you to identify priorities and strategies for improving community relations, ending racial profiling and other discriminatory practices that affect our most underrepresented, underserved and excluded
residents.

We welcome you as a partner in our work to bring about a more just and equitable society with dignity and justice for all.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey Martin and Tyrone Scales
Human Rights City Alliance

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This work needs to continue, it’s about collaboration, respect, and respect for life. I expect our nation’s police to lead it by example!

Good work here, Chief McLay.