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?

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.”

“Mediocrity at best, corruption at worst. — Mayor Peduto

The Pittsburgh police department was formally created in 1857 under Chief Robert Hague; officers were paid $50 a month. Over the next century, as former University of Pittsburgh researcher Christine Altenburger has written, corruption, political favoritism and scandal wracked the poorly trained, poorly educated department. Up and through World War II, Pittsburgh police kept no central system of records, hired and promoted political favorites over better-qualified candidates and provided little formal training for new officers.

Reform arrived in 1950, following outrage over the unsolved rape/murder of a Shadyside woman named Jean Brusco and an FBI declaration that Pittsburgh was one of the most poorly policed cities in the country. With help from the Internal Association of Chiefs of Police, then-Mayor David Lawrence began a reorganization of the force, strengthened recruiting requirements and established a 10-week training program for new officers.

Citizens welcomed those changes, but the force remained insular, white and male — unreflective of the broader city population, which by 1970 was one-fifth African-American. In 1975, a federal judge forced the diversification of the department: For every white man hired, the bureau also was required to hire a white woman, a black man and a black woman. Diversity grew for a time. By 1997, the makeup of the bureau’s once heavily male leadership had shifted to 38 percent female, according to the National Center for Women & Policing. After another judge dismantled the one-in-four rule in 1991, however, a wave of white men joined the force. 

At the same time, crack cocaine-fueled gang violence had taken hold in some city neighborhoods and suburbs. The city continued to shed population after the steel-industry collapse, and its coffers were low. To save money, then-Mayor Sophie Masloff offered a generous buyout offer to veteran officers in 1994. Nearly half of the department’s 1,206 officers — including many supervisors and investigators — took the deal. The department was replenished with lower-paid recruits, but few veterans remained to supervise them; by 1996, two-thirds of the force had less than 10 years of experience.

“They hired people who should have never been hired,” says Robert W. McNeilly Jr., who was Pittsburgh Police Chief from 1996 to 2006. “Citizen complaints started to increase, lawsuits started to increase, [patrol] car crashes started to increase — the things you see from so many new officers.”

To fight the drug trade, the bureau created an “Impact Squad” that swarmed into affected neighborhoods to arrest dealers. The proto-stop-and-frisk policy helped to catch gang members, but law-abiding citizens also were caught in the wide net. Complaints soared, particularly among African-American residents.

The Masloff administration also gutted the police Office of Professional Standards, which handled internal investigations of officers. The result: In 1996, a city audit revealed the department had never investigated 1,600 citizen complaints. Months later, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report highlighting the department’s predilection for excessive force, false arrests, improper searches and seizures, as well as its failure to supervise and adequately discipline problem officers.

By spring 1997, Pittsburgh agreed to the first-ever police consent decree with the Justice Department, which mandated and supervised certain changes. The bureau was required to create a computerized system to document officer behavior, provide annual training and improve the citizen-complaint procedure. In 2001, the revamped bureau was released from the consent decree.

After 10 years on the job, Chief McNeilly was fired in January 2006 by newly elected Mayor Bob O’Connor, who replaced him with retired Cmdr. Dom Costa. O’Connor, however, died after less than a year in office; his successor, 26-year-old City Council President Luke Ravenstahl, appointed Harper, the assistant chief for investigations and a former patrol officer and supervisor, as his chief of police.

Harper, the city’s third African-American chief, initially was a popular choice among many factions in the community and department. His increasingly tumultuous tenure, however, was marred by administrative mishaps, lax oversight of finances and federal investigations; many observers believe the resulting damage, in part, contributed to Ravenstahl’s decision to not seek re-election.

In 2010, three officers chased and beat Jordan Miles of Homewood, an African-American 18-year-old senior at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12 magnet school. Miles later was awarded $119,000 in a civil lawsuit, but local and federal officials declined to press charges against officers involved. The next year, during a traffic stop in Highland Park, an officer shot a 19-year-old African-American man named Leon Ford five times, paralyzing him. Then, in 2013, Chief Harper resigned, faced indictment and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit theft from a federally funded program and failing to file tax returns; he was sentenced to prison for 18 months.

Upon taking office in early 2014, Mayor Bill Peduto declared he was looking for a transformational figure to change the force. Pittsburgh police, Peduto said, was “mediocrity at best, corruption at worst.”

As a young man, Cameron McLay had only a hazy vision for his future. After a childhood in several states and the United Kingdom — he spent a handful of years in Mt. Lebanon while his father worked for Alcoa — he enrolled at the University of Indiana-Bloomington in 1978. At school, he met and married his wife, Debra; to help pay his tuition and bills, he joined the campus police force. He majored in forensic studies and minored in psychology while teaching self-defense.

After graduation, McLay and his wife moved to Wisconsin, where he joined the Madison Police Department. The chief then was David Couper, who took the helm in 1972 amidst angry Vietnam War protests. Instead of cracking skulls, Couper marched with protesters, arguing a close relationship with the community was the safest option. As chief, Couper increased recruitment of women and minorities, required officers to obtain college degrees and pushed for community policing — the concept that police should build ties with neighborhoods and cities and try to solve problems before they devolved into crime.

Much of the rank-and-file viewed Couper with suspicion. Young and cocky, McLay was among the skeptics. “That’s not real police work,” he remembers thinking. “Police work is about catching bad guys.”

After a stint teaching defense and arrerst tactics at the Madison police academy, he moved back to the street. Over the next few decades, McLay and his wife raised three children while he worked his way from officer to sergeant to lieutenant to captain (the equivalent of commander in Pittsburgh). Through his work in self-defense and training, he earned a reputation as the department’s use-of-force guy; he also spent 24 years on the SWAT team.

Use of force — the amount of physical effort an officer must apply to gain control of a situation — long has been a cornerstone of law enforcement. Today, use-of-force standards vary among police departments, but they generally start with verbal commands and escalate to physical measures such as batons, pepper spray, Tasers and dogs. The final measure — use of a firearm — is reserved for situations in which a suspect threatens the life of another citizen or an officer. Complaints regarding excessive use of force drive many modern-day debates on policing.

In Madison, McLay says he learned from neighborhood leaders that excessive force and aggressive policing during the 1990s and 2000s had damaged the relationship between the department and minority communities. Those talks led McLay to an epiphany — Chief Couper had been right. McLay, too, began to advocate for community policing before and after he retired from the Madison force in 2014. He began working as a consultant, offering leadership-training courses through the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In summer 2014, McLay learned of Pittsburgh’s national search for a new chief. He put together his detailed analysis of the department’s problems, updated his resume and sent it off, believing that, as an outsider, he was a long shot. Best-case scenario? He might get the valuable experience of interviewing with a big-city mayor and a possible consulting gig.
Five weeks later, he was sworn in.

The new chief wasted no time in introducing modern best practices for law enforcement. He outlawed use of blackjacks, metal clubs that many police departments ditched decades ago because their use caused brain injuries. After a traffic stop turned into a high-speed pursuit that injured five people, the chief banned car chases unless the vehicle had been involved in a violent felony. McLay hired civilians for jobs in information technology and crime analysis to return officers to the street. He revived the Office of Professional Standards to not only oversee the creation of policy and training, but also conduct internal investigations of officer behavior. 

​McLay also proved to be a canny political operator by launching a community-building blitz. In those first months, he spent more than half of his time out in the city, meeting with activists, neighborhood, political, business and faith leaders to assure them the bureau was changing. He found a receptive audience. Local foundations, including R.K. Mellon and The Heinz Endowments, ponied up dollars to update bureau technology, improve data-driven crime analysis and provide training. Carnegie Mellon University offered help in tackling technological problems, as did the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. The chief’s network deepened by participating in Leadership Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that aims to connect and train the city’s future powerbrokers.

All of that time spent in the community, though, meant that he didn’t get to know all of his officers as well as he might have — which eventually blew up in his face. On Dec. 31, 2014, after a conversation with an anti-racism group in a Downtown coffeeshop, McLay agreed to hold up a sign for a photo. The sign read, “I resolve to challenge racism @ work. #EndWhiteSilence.” He shared it on his Twitter account.

Activists and media organizations noted and celebrated the sentiment — even his boss, Peduto, shared the photo. Leadership of the city’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter, however, was less than pleased. “The chief is calling us racists,” then-president Howard McQuillan told KDKA-TV. McLay deleted his Twitter account and apologized for offending officers, although he said he stood by the sentiment of the sign.

Today, McQuillan calls the #endwhitesilence tweet a “major blow to morale” of the rank-and-file. Although he acknowledges the challenges McLay faced as an outsider, McQuillan disputes that police previously had poor relationships with the city. “The chief was sold a false bill of sale in coming here and saying that we had such a disconnect with our communities,” he says. “I think he prioritized communities and community policing over working with his [department], which need more work than anything — on internal issues, on morale issues. If he had worked on [internal issues] I think we’d be in a different set of circumstances right now.” 

The kerfuffle was yet another low point for bureau morale, as officers were gearing up for a fight over their contract; citing financial distress, Peduto refused to offer more than minimal raises in negotiations.

Poor pay was and is a major point of contention. Being a big-city cop generally is harder than working in many suburbs, but today Pittsburgh pays 26 percent lower than the region’s average; starting salary for a new officer is currently $40,896, less than what an entry-level animal-control officer earns. Cops could and did make extra money working traffic or private-security details, but the best gigs historically went to political favorites within the bureau. Officers also despised the long-standing city residency requirement, which for many meant a choice between sending their children to some city public schools that performed lower than suburban counterparts or scraping together tuition for private school.

​McLay stands by his early focus on community building — “it was critical for me,” he says — but admits it may have temporarily hurt his relationship with officers. “Sometimes, members within an organization don’t understand that the chief is the chief of police for the entire community — not simply for the men and women within the department.”
McQuillan is less positive. “A good majority of the rank-and-file were hopeful when he came in, but [the Twitter controversy] set them back,” he says today. “There’s not a lot of trust.”

On Feb. 1, Sgt. Matakovich recounted his side of the stadium-arrest story during his preliminary hearing in a municipal courtroom. Matakovich and his attorney dissected the video, arguing that Despres had made threatening moves and tried to grab his jacket, prompting his use of increased force. In this case, he said, that meant punching Despres. 

Pittsburgh police officer David Wright, the bureau’s use-of-force expert, disagreed in his testimony, saying he did not see Despres resisting and therefore Matakovich was not justified in employing that level of force.

The hearing wasn’t the first time that Matakovich had drawn public attention. In 2012, the city paid a $9,500 settlement after a Beaver County man, in a lawsuit, alleged the sergeant repeatedly punched him and addressed him with a slur. In January 2013, Matakovich was one of five officers to shoot at a car following a high-speed chase along busy Carson Street in the South Side; a bystander was grazed. That same year, his zone commander tried to demote and transfer him, saying he made threats against another supervisor; that effort was overruled by the then-public safety director. Media reports also focused on his earnings in 2015; with salary and overtime, Matakovich earned $190,000 last year — $82,500 more than the mayor.

After hearing the evidence, Magisterial District Judge Robert Ravenstahl — father of former mayor Luke Ravenstahl and state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl — dismissed the charges, saying the case instead should be handled internally. The officers packing the courtroom to support Matakovich cheered.

Legal observers were mystified. David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has studied police bureaus in Pittsburgh and nationwide, called the ruling legally wrong and indefensible. Zappala refiled the charges in February. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office also announced a review of the case, and in April a federal grand jury indicted Matakovich for depriving Despres of his civil rights and falsifying documents. At press time, hearings on the charges were pending.

The police bureau’s internal investigation, meanwhile, found Matakovich had violated department policy. “There has to be a lawful reason for the application of force, and then that force has to be objectively reasonable,” says McLay. “In this particular case, the preponderance of evidence led me to believe that the force lacked a constitutional basis and that the force being used was excessive for the contest. Very serious policies had been violated.”

A few days after the court hearing — well aware of potential repercussions — McLay fired Matakovich.

“It is a long and difficult road he has picked, but he is a very honorable and smart guy. — David Harris

On a crisp morning in February, McLay pulls his black, unmarked Ford Police Interceptor into the parking lot of the bureau’s training academy, a low-slung, cement-block building on Washington Boulevard. The chief keeps a tight schedule; it’s 9 a.m., but he’s already spent the past hour talking with officers at the Zone 5 station nearby; later, he’ll head to the Allegheny County Emergency Services building to chat with an interfaith group about protecting places of worship.

For now, he’s standing in a room that resembles an old cafeteria, with brown folding tables and scuffed-up floors; Panera bagels sit untouched in the back. During the past six weeks, the entire bureau, from the command staff down through patrol officers, has completed the National Initiative for Building Trust and Justice training, to mixed reviews. Trainers report rank-and-file officers were fairly open to learning how to communicate more effectively with the public. Still, the officers sought assurance that the public also will be better educated in how they do their jobs, particularly in regard to use of force; McLay promises he’ll look into it.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” says McLay, sounding perhaps a little too optimistic. “Yeah, there are still some rougher-around-the-edges guys who said, [grumbling], ‘Yeah, it was interesting.’ But if you manage to get that out of some of your more veteran workforce, you had a good day. And we got the ultimate police day-shift compliment, ‘Hey, it wasn’t bull—-]!’”

The Matakovich case, meanwhile, continues to unfold. Although Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich upheld the sergeant’s firing, Matakovich and the FOP have appealed to a three-person arbitration board, as permitted in the police contract. McLay remains wary of that process, noting past cases in which arbitrators overturned firings and reinstated the officers.

“One of the things that I saw as a problem before I came here — and it turned out to be true — is that the city and management reported being unable to deal with bad apples due to binding arbitration,” he says. “There are two sides to that coin. I didn’t know if the process of binding arbitration was bad or corrupt, or if the department and the city was doing a terrible job of firing people.

“We have a history of not holding ourselves accountable,” he adds. “I’m not ready to start screaming foul yet, but I’m watching.”

Community leaders who in the past had been troubled by police performance say they are pleased with McLay’s progress — lawsuits filed against the city decreased by 50 percent and complaints against police are down 43 percent over the past two years, according to the city Law Department. “I think he has been the best PR person the city could have gotten in beginning to build relationships between the community and the police,” says Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project. “He’s helping to bridge the gap between police and African-American communities.” 

Brandi Fisher, of the Alliance for Police Accountability, agrees: “Matakovich put the chief’s words to the test. I don’t think we could ask more in that case, we couldn’t expect more from the chief.” 

Still, change is ongoing. “This is not a one-year, two-year journey,” says Harris, the Pitt law professor. “We didn’t get into the mess overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight. It is a long and difficult road he has picked, but he is a very honorable and smart guy. I hope we can give him enough time and support to be a transformational figure.”

“It is a very difficult time because across the country you are seeing a rapid division between police and community,” says Peduto. “And in Pittsburgh, you are seeing a police chief [who] is going the other way. The greatest thing I can say about Chief McLay’s work is that he has been able to bridge the chasm between the black community and the police bureau. And at the same time, been able to restore morale in rank and file. Maybe not all [officers]. But for the many who want to work in a strong, professional police bureau, he’s restored that faith that Pittsburgh police can be that model.”

Despite the support, the question remains whether McLay’s approach — boosting data-driven community policing, restoring trust with citizens and fixing leadership problems — will actually reduce crime. Will citizens, especially in poorer neighborhoods, trust officers enough to report crimes? Will officers be willing to work with communities to solve problems up front? Will new crime-analysis software work? Each component of McLay’s plan is akin to a leg on a massive stool — if one fails, the whole thing collapses. 
In order to prevent a collapse, McLay has been spending more time meeting with officers and listening to their concerns. “They do amazing work, honestly they do,” he says. “I am extremely impressed with the quality of the work they do, with the violence that they deal with, the ability to handle these difficult situations, and they get it right far more than they get it wrong.”

Though the chief has no control over contract negotiations — that’s the mayor’s purview — he’s also begun to take some union-friendly stands, with an eye toward recruitment. According to McQuillan, around 350 of the bureau’s 830 officers are pension-eligible and half of those could retire today. McLay, in a push for a larger, more diverse force, says the residency requirement is outdated and officers need a raise.

“Ultimately, I understand [that] making this economy long-term sustainable has to be job No. 1,” he says. “However, at some point the policy makers will need to have on their radar screen that having highly professional police requires salaries that meet the general market. You need to be able to pay enough that it attracts college graduates who could choose to do other things but choose instead to serve their community.”

And everything, for McLay, ultimately comes back to the community.

“The evolution that needs to occur in policing generally is to move from this concept where ‘they’re the community, we’re the police,’” he says. “We need to move toward where we are true partners with the community, and the community members embrace ownership in public safety.”  

Patrick Doyle is a columnist and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Magazine, regularly writing on urban development and politics. A former editor at Boston Magazine and 5280 Magazine, he has written for Outside, Backpacker and MIT Technology Review.


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