Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto on Tuesday said he has full confidence in his police chief despite department gaffes that triggered grousing among the ranks.
Police Chief Cameron McLay in an email sent to officers blamed himself for forcing them to work overtime on short notice during Sunday’s Pittsburgh Marathon, calling it a product of poor planning and promising a fix.
It’s at least the third time McLay, 58, of Squirrel Hill has either acknowledged a failing or apologized to the bureau of about 800 officers since Peduto hired him in September 2014 from the Madison (Wis.) Police Department, where McLay, as a captain, oversaw 60 of the department’s 449 officers.
In January 2015, the chief issued an apology for being photographed in uniform at Downtown’s “First Night” New Year’s Eve celebration holding a handmade sign that read “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #endwhitesilence.”
He said the photograph, shared on social media, apparently offended some officers.
In mid-April, he said the department should have been better prepared to deal with protesters at a rally for GOP presidential primary candidate Donald Drumpf at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. McLay said more officers in riot gear should have been poised to help. The police union complained officers were not permitted to wear riot gear during the rally in which several officers reported being pepper sprayed.
“A good leader is going to have those within the ranks that won’t agree with him,” Peduto said. “That’s a pattern. Whether it’s a Gen. (George) Patton or a Gen. (Omar) Bradley, there will be some that don’t like when change occurs. My confidence isn’t wavering with the chief. In fact, I have more confidence because he’s willing to admit when a problem exists.”
The Tribune-Review obtained a copy of an email McLay sent to officers after the marathon in which he apologized and thanked them for working on an off day. Peduto said McLay copied him on the message.
“The key to success in handling complex operations is having highly-trained people, robust planning and excellence of execution of that plan,” McLay wrote.
“This year, my execution level failed in the planning phase. We should have been proactive in the planning and staffing of this important city event, and we were not. I am ultimately responsible for that failure, a responsibility I do not take lightly.”
He said the “matter is under investigation,” but a public safety spokeswoman said he meant the department is reviewing “exactly what happened and how it happened.”
“Review would be a better word,” Public Safety spokeswoman Sonya Toler said.
Despite the apology, the police union, Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, plans to follow through with a threat to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, saying McLay violated its contract by forcing officers to work.
“I’ll be filing it this week,” said union President Robert Swartzwelder.
Swartzwelder would neither comment on the email nor confirm its existence, saying communications from the chief are confidential. Toler confirmed McLay issued the apology and said he has ordered a department restructuring to avert such planning issues.
“In recent events I recognized a vital disconnect; those who are responsible to command our events are not involved in the planning,” McLay said in the email.
The department’s Planning Section will move to the Operations Branch under the assistant chief of operations, and personnel from the Special Deployment Division will have input in planning event coverage.
“There is going to be some restructuring where all of the folks who should be involved in planning special events are housed under one unit,” Toler said.
Peduto noted that the police bureau has come under fire in the past from the Justice Department for its minority hiring practices and that former police Chief Nate Harper was sentenced to federal prison for bilking department funds.
He said his administration and McLay are attempting to change department culture to a more professional organization.
“The majority of the officers understand where our administration, where this chief, are trying to take this bureau,” the mayor said. “Some are going to want it to go back to the old days. What we’ll have is an opportunity for officers to be a part of the change, but change is inevitable, and Chief McLay is here to stay to make sure it happens.”
Swartzwelder said he advised all officers forced to work the marathon to file for overtime pay. He said those who started work before 7 a.m. or 8 a.m., their normal shift start times, are entitled to four hours of “call-out” time. Officers starting after those hours are entitled to eight hours of pay.
All of the officers should receive 1.5 times their normal hourly rate, Swartzwelder said.
“That’s the FOP’s position,” he said. “I’m not saying the city is going to agree with that.”
He promised to file grievances if the city disagrees.
Police officials sought 110 volunteers to provide security during the marathon, but only about 30 accepted. Most earn base pay of $60,000 to $64,000 a year.
Toler said McLay and others were reviewing marathon planning and would be prepared for Sunday’s Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure in Oakland. Pittsburgh would offer the detail to officers from outside agencies if necessary, she said.
“There will definitely be enough officers to (staff) that race,” Toler said.