Why Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is Cornered

Can McLay reshape the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in his polite, communication-heavy, community-friendly, racially sensitive, 21st-century image?

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photos by becky thurner braddock


The video did not look good. 

On a chilly, rainy Saturday in late November 2015, thousands of high school football fans filed into Heinz Field for the championship games of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. 

When 19-year-old Gabriel Despres tried to slip into the stadium, employees stopped him, suspecting he’d been drinking. The teen refused to leave, until Pittsburgh Police Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, working an off-duty security detail at the stadium, arrived. Matakovich was wearing his navy police uniform.

​Despres, Matakovich later wrote in an incident report, was belligerent and made a threatening move toward the officer. Matakovich responded by taking Despres to the ground, and, after a few minutes of tussling, handcuffed and arrested him. Despres was charged with public drunkenness, underage drinking and defiant trespass; his twice-postponed preliminary hearing now is set for May 16. 

A few weeks later, a Heinz Field administrator approached Cmdr. Eric Holmes, chief of staff for Police Chief Cameron McLay, and turned over video footage from a security camera. Holmes brought it to McLay. The black-and-white video, shot from above the security gates, appeared to depict a different scene than what Matakovich had described.

The footage showed Matakovich and a pair of security guards talking to Despres. The teen is standing — slouching, really — with his hands in his pockets when Matakovich takes a few quick steps forward and shoves him in the chest. Despres falls to the ground. 

When Despres tries to stand, Matakovich shoves him down again and punches him in the face. The two go off-camera for a moment, but when they return, Matakovich is still punching him. The video ends with Matakovich pinning Despres to the ground and arresting him.

When Mayor Bill Peduto appointed McLay as police chief in September 2014, McLay stressed his commitment to bringing the department into the 21st century when it came to transparency, accountability and policy, as well are reviving poor relations with the city’s minority communities. 

As the new chief acknowledged at his first news conference, Pittsburgh Police tactics were too often “overbearing, abusive and even oppressive.” Still, McLay knew he’d have to build rapport with the bureau’s rank-and-file, a group that was understaffed, underpaid and felt unappreciated. The bureau still carried the tarnish left by McLay’s predecessor, Nathan E. Harper, who at that time was in federal prison for skimming money from a police bank account.

That Peduto felt the need to hire a chief from outside the department for the first time in documented Pittsburgh history — McLay spent 30 years with the Madison, Wis., Police Department — demonstrated his lack of faith in the force. 

The big question was whether McLay possessed the deft, political touch needed to overhaul the force while navigating Pittsburgh’s complex racial history against a backdrop of national protests over police brutality. 

The situation involving Sgt. Matakovich presented the chief with two choices. 

Door number 1: McLay could slap Matakovich on the wrist, infuriating the community but potentially winning points with the union and rank-and-file for standing by his officer. 

Door number 2: He could bring the power of the bureau down upon Matakovich by conducting not just an internal investigation, but a criminal investigation of the encounter, too. In doing so, McLay would keep his promise to hold officers accountable — while risking an ugly public fight with the union. 

​McLay picked up the phone. 

“We’ve gained a lot of ground with how the community views us, but it is still fragile. – Chief McLay

On a blustery morning in early January, Pittsburgh’s top cops, including four assistant chiefs and 10 commanders, have assembled at bureau headquarters on the North Side for a day of training with the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Pittsburgh is one of six pilot cities in the federal Department of Justice program, created in the midst of a national conversation about police encounters that led to the deaths of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others. The program also aligns with part of McLay’s mission: it seeks to heal strained relationships between police and the nation’s poor, minority communities.

​McLay, bald, bespectacled and trim at 58, stands to introduce the program. “I am really excited about this training,” he tells his command staff, his enthusiasm palpable. As is almost everyone in the room, the chief is dressed in plainclothes; the aim in forgoing uniforms today is to encourage officers to look beyond ranks and engage in frank conversations. McLay opts for a gray V-neck sweater, dark slacks and black dress shoes. A 9mm Glock sits on his hip.

“Every interaction with a citizen matters,” he continues. “We’ve gained a lot of ground with how the community views us, but it is still fragile. One or two incidents and we could lose it.”

​McLay turns over the session to Lt. Kristin Zett, one of seven Pittsburgh officers who trained in Chicago with the academic creators of the federal program. Today, Zett and her colleagues are teaching procedural justice — the idea that how police interact with the public affects the community’s view of the department. 

As police officers spend much of their time dealing with criminals, they may become cynical and forget the vast majority of citizens — 94 to 97 percent, according to Zett’s presentation — are law-abiding. When officers act rudely or with unreasonable aggression, those interactions can destroy good citizens’ views of the entire department. While employing courtesy and communication might sound like Policing 101, it has enormous repercussions: If officers don’t behave well during small interactions, a citizen who witnesses a serious crime — say, a shooting — is going to be less inclined to trust police enough to report it. 

“Why are we here?” Zett asks. “We want citizens to cooperate with us. That results in increased safety and reduced crime. And there is a spiraling effort that people behave better as we become better.”

Over the next hours, facial expressions in the room range from slightly bored to super-engaged. (McLay is super-engaged). This is one of the early Pittsburgh groups to go through the program; over the next few weeks, Zett and her cohorts will train the entire 830-member department. They’re keenly aware that not everyone will be receptive to its progressive ideology. In 2008, the director of the National Initiative, David Kennedy, came to Pittsburgh to run another program. It failed spectacularly. “The Pittsburgh police department,” he later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “was absolutely the most condescending and aggressively uncooperative agency I have encountered.”

​McLay hopes this training will go better because it’s being led by peer leaders in the department, including Zett, Cmdr. Jason Lando and Master Police Officer Robert Swartzwelder (who, two months later, would be elected president of the local police union). Peer leadership is a big deal to McLay, who earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Colorado State and can sound like a Bay Area tech CEO giving a TED Talk.

“I always say, it’s not about me,” he says later in an interview in his office. “[I tell my officers], the longer you are going to be here, the more this is your organization. So the question is, what type of organization do you want to be part of? Everyone has the opportunity to be a force of positive change for the organization.”

Part of that positive change, in McLay’s mind, is opening up what has been a closed, insular system that was unresponsive to community concerns about aggressive policing. “The leadership is responsible for making sure the community gets served and that members of the organization are provided for and taken care of,” he says. “And the leadership in the Pittsburgh Police did not do that.”

“I have painted us into a corner ... It’s show time for us. There is only one right thing to do — and that is fix this problem. — Chief McLay

It also means holding officers accountable for their actions. In the case of Matakovich, McLay placed the sergeant on leave and referred the case for both internal and criminal investigations; later, he sent it on to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. When Zappala’s office charged Matakovich with perjury, simple assault, unsworn falsification and official oppression in mid-December, McLay publicly supported the filing of charges — an unusual step for a police chief.

The chief knows the city is watching closely, though, and by introducing the federal training to the bureau, he’s upped that scrutiny. 

“As I’ve been pointing out to the members of the community and my own staff, I have painted us into a corner. Right now, all eyes in the nation are going to be on what Pittsburgh does in restoring trust and perceptions of justice between police and our communities,” the chief says, smiling. “It’s show time for us. There is only one right thing to do — and that is fix this problem.”

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