Empower Wisconsin | Oct. 15, 2019
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Will Madison’s next police chief be a crime fighter or a social justice warrior?
There are growing concerns among Madison’s rank and file police officers that far left Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway will push former Pittsburg police chief Cameron McLay as the city’s next top cop.
McLay is best known for angering Pittsburgh police for his radical views on law enforcement, punctuated by a speech he gave — in uniform — at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. His approach in the pursuit of improving race-relations between cops and the community alienated many Pittsburgh police officers who saw McLay as a divisive, activist chief.
He resigned just two years after he took the position, but that was after Pittsburgh police had made it official: they had no confidence in their “reformer” chief.
McLay at the helm of MPD is a jarring prospect for police who just lost to voluntary retirement Police Chief Mike Koval. Koval tried to shield the force from Madison’s political games with law enforcement. He walked away suddenly, late last month, fed up with the politicking of the mayor and the liberal city council.
A spokeswoman for Rhodes-Conway did not return a call seeking comment. Nor did police union representatives.
Partisan police chief
McLay is back in Madison after his brief hiatus in Pittsburgh and Seattle. He serves as deputy mayor, leading Madison’s “city-wide initiative on Performance Excellence.”
McLay served for 29 years as a Madison police officer, retiring at the rank of captain in 2014.
He was then hired as Police chief of Pittsburgh, brought in to serve as a reformer of a troubled department whose former police chief was sentenced to 18 months in prison on corruption charges.
But it wasn’t long before the reformer was criticized by his officers for being an activist with a liberal bent.
In late 2014, McLay posed with a sign that proclaimed, “I resolve to challenge racism at work #EndWhiteSilence,” the Pitt News reported. That ticked off a lot of cops in the local police union.
In summer 2016, McLay found himself in the national political spotlight when he addressed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia — in uniform. He took a good deal of heat for his speech and the partisan back drop. McLay told Democrats that there was a “crisis of trust in the police and criminal justice system, especially among people of color.”
“We need to improve the integrity of our system as human beings and fight our natural tendency to hide inside our narrow world views,” he told the DNC.
To many in the police department, the chief’s speech looked a lot like campaigning. McLay said he was doing no such thing. He also first told reporters that the Democratic National Convention paid for his trip, then he said Hillary Clinton’s campaign covered the cost.
Even his supporters raised concerns that McLay had crossed a clear line of police ethics.
“While I interpret the code differently, I strongly believe I must be accountable to all relevant laws and city policies,” he said at the time. “I did not support any candidate. I went to great lengths to say nothing but what I intended to say.”
Bob Swartzwelder, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, wasn’t buying it.
“The whole purpose of the RNC and the DNC is to emplace a presidential candidate. If you think that’s inaccurate, you’re an idiot,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When McLay resigned in November 2016, he said, “I’ve done as much as I can.” The work was bigger than one person, he added. It was about the community.
By the time he exited, the Pittsburgh police union had given McLay a vote of no confidence.
Swartzwelder thought McLay was all about McLay.
“He cared more about what the community thought about him than what his own officers thought about him,” Swartzwelder told Publicsource.org. “I don’t think he fulfilled his primary duty.”
McLay had to answer integrity questions before he took the Pittsburgh post. He admitted to cheating on an exam as a young recruit. McLay, who came highly recommended, was able to move past the black mark on his record.
It certainly was a consideration, though, among cops in Seattle, where McLay took a law enforcement position after leaving Pittsburgh. McLay, who had been in the running for the Seattle chief position, was ultimately moved out of the list of finalists.
“His reputation precedes him,” one Seattle Police Department employee told Crosscut.com.
Now McLay is back in Madison, the liberal city that helped forge him into the law enforcement officer he became.
And McLay, as deputy mayor, is poised to continue what many in Pittsburgh saw as his radical reform policies — this time from the outside. He is at the forefront of the creation of a civilian police oversight committee.
“The real power is creating civilian oversight to provide that community voice that says, ‘Police department, as you’re contemplating policies that may have an impact on the community, we’d like to have a voice in what policies you’re going to adopt,” McLay told Wisconsin Public Radio last month.
Many of those voices, however, are the ones screaming to remove police officers from crime-ridden city schools and release felons from prisons. And too many of those voices are at open war with Madison law enforcement.
That’s why Madison cops are so concerned about who will next lead them.