McLay Resignation, Morale & Community Policing Top Mayoral Candidates’ Public Safety Concerns

May 3, 2017

While waiting for his bus downtown, Melvin Dawson said he doesn’t dislike Mayor Bill Peduto.

“He’s OK,” he said. “But I think they messed up when they let that police chief go."

He was referring to former police Chief Cameron McLay, who was hired in 2014, and resigned in November. Dawson said he knows Peduto put McLay in place, and the police union may have been largely responsible for his resignation. Either way, he’s lost some faith.

“Like once he left, they’re back to the same old stuff,” he said, referring to what he views as racial bias and the over-policing of communities of color by police officers. 

For Dawson, it’s time to try something new. He’ll be voting for challenger, Rev. John Welch.

Welch, who serves as the head chaplain for Pittsburgh’s police department, said he saw potential for real change when McLay came on board.

“I had a lot of faith in chief Cam McLay,” Welch said. “And he was implementing the reforms that I believe needed to take place, both in the area of police safety, police community relations and as well as diversity.”

McLay's successor, current Chief Scott Schubert has said he’d like to continue with McLay’s vision, including programs like implicit bias training, to help prevent officers remove their pre-conceived notions before entering a situation. Peduto and Welch are big supporters of it.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris has a different priority.

“I have been hollering that we don't have enough officers,” Harris said. “The other issue is we're not paying them, and that's why we keep losing our officers.”

Currently under Peduto, there are 912 officers. Peduto said that’s the first time the city has exceeded 900 in 15 years, with more in the academy. But a big issue is the relationship between the mayor’s office and the police union. Since before Peduto took office, it’s been rocky, between wage disputes, contract negotiations and disagreement over hiring McLay.  

“But I would hope that the men and women who are the rank and file of the police force understand that my job is to keep them safe, to make sure they get a good wage to give them the equipment and training that they need, as well,” Peduto said. “And I do believe that there is a line that has to be walked in the days that we live right now, between community and police. But the job of the mayor isn't to pick sides. The job of the mayor is to pull them together.”

Harris has pointed to low morale within the department and said the job of the mayor is to get out of the way of officers.

“I mean, they have felt so down that it is unbelievable the way they've been treated by this administration,” she said. “I think if I do become mayor, they will perk up quite a bit.”

Whereas Welch said, as the head chaplain of the police department, he has a leg up already.

Pittsburgh resident Lloyd Gaston agreed.

“Well, as far as being a reverend, naturally he’s concerned about other people,” he said. “Not only as far as that he’s black, which would help with the neighborhoods around here, it’s the fact that he really cares about people.”

Gaston’s fiancé Patricia Congdon is on the fence, but leaning.  

“I like William (Peduto) ‘cause he seems to be vibrant, caring, loving for Pittsburgh," she said. "And he’s happy and excited and he’s got energy because he’s like one of the home boys."

As far as crime itself, Pittsburgh’s numbers are in line with the country as a whole. According to 2015 Pittsburgh Police numbers, the most recently available, homicides decreased by 17 percent and reported rapes dropped by 10 percent. Peduto said encouraging predictive analytics and more technology like ShotSpotter is already helping.

Welch said crime is linked to economic development.

“We have young people that are creating their own economies out of necessity,” he said. “We need to give them an alternative. They need to have jobs where they can make good family sustaining wages.”

Pittsburgher Kathy Barlow said despite each candidate’s platforms and intentions, nothing happens overnight. She thinks Peduto deserves a little more time.  

“I think it takes a long time to affect change, especially in a city like this,” she said. “It’s an old city and people are set in their ways. And it takes a long time for people to get on that bandwagon and for things to turn.”

The primary is May 16.