Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay was praised across the nation when he was photographed on New Year’s Eve holding a sign that said, “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.” It provided stark contrast to the incompetence of cops in Ferguson, Mo., the belligerence of police unions in New York and the hostility that many departments were showing in the wake of nationwide #BlackLivesMatter protests against police brutality.
He was, to read his press, one of the good guys. But the truth doesn’t really match the hashtag.
The photo op and pundit plaudits were just a cover for a chief who has failed to address one of the most corrupt and abusive police departments in recent history. His is the story of how one picture changed a narrative and how “hashtag activism” can often hide the shocking truth.
This ’Burgh Is the Pitts
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is not the worst police department in the United States, but it certainly won’t win any awards for community relations. Despite being smaller than the departments of some urban centers—just over 1,000 officers—Pittsburgh’s pattern of abuse and corruption was so bad, it was the first police department in U.S. history to be taken over by the Justice Department under “consent decree” from 1997-2002.
And while federal oversight improved things for a few years, the department has slid back into old patterns of behavior that seem more like the script from Training Day or The Wire than the good police work that the public expects.
Three recent cases of police brutality by white Pittsburgh police officers against African Americans have highlighted endemic issues in the department. In 2011 Jordan Miles was brutally beaten by a trio of cops, nicknamed “the Jump-Out Boys” because of their aggressive arrest tactics. Miles, a violinist at a performing arts school, who had performed for first lady Michelle Obama about a month before the incident, was on his way to his grandmother’s house when the plainclothes officers began chasing him under suspicion he was a drug dealer with a gun.
After recovering from the police beating, which included having chunks of his hair and scalp torn out, Miles sued the city and was awarded $119,000 in a civil suit—only to have the police turn around and threaten to sue him for more than $100,000 in legal fees. That case is still pending.
In a 2012 car stop, a police officer reached in to pull Leon Ford Jr. from the driver’s side because the officer suspected that Ford’s license and registration were faked. They were not.
The officer claims that Ford tried to drive away, and that out of fear for his life, he shot Ford—who said that he hit the accelerator out of fear during the ensuing struggle. Ford, 19 years old at the time, was shot five times and paralyzed for life, only to have then-county prosecutor Stephen A. Zappala sue Ford on five counts of assaulting police officers.
After almost two years, the county finally dropped the charges on Ford, with Zappala, saying that “given the efforts of Chief McLay to improve police and community relations,” he hoped this effort would “assist both the chief and our community in this regard.”
Most recently, in 2013, Dennis Henderson, a Pittsburgh public school teacher, was arrested and jailed for 12 hours because he used his cell phone to record an officer who kept speeding through a residential neighborhood. He sued the city and won.
And last year, former Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper—who is African American—was sentenced to 18 months in jail on charges of embezzlement and corruption. It was time for a change.
New Face of National Policing
McLay was hired as Pittsburgh’s new police chief in September 2014, just days after the protests in Ferguson were drawing national attention. McLay was white, came from the college town of Madison, Wisc., said all the right things and seemed like a breath of fresh air.
At the time, no one could have predicted how a Twitpic and a hashtag would bring him national prominence. On New Year’s Eve, McLay was in a local coffee shop and struck up a conversation with some activists from What’s UP!? Pittsburgh (which initially stood for “Working and Healing to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege”).
They asked McLay to pose with a sign they’d written with the powerful words “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.” He agreed, it went viral and soon praise from all corners of the Internet and media was filling up his Twitter timeline.
When Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police President Howard McQuillan accused McLay of undermining the force, it only solidified McLay’s street cred with activists and journalists. But while social media and networks have lauded him as a hero, McLay’s actions have been oppositional to the sign that he’s being praised for.
At a Dec. 19 community meeting, McLay was asked several questions about race relations between the community and police. According to the New Pittsburgh Courier city paper, he delivered a monologue on race and policing that was a stunning example of either tone deafness or insensitivity to the mostly minority crowd.
Per the Courier, “[McLay] noted the percentage of police guilty of racial bias and excessive use of force is between 3 percent and 5 percent; that is the same percentage, he said, of the community driving the drug and gun violence.”
The comparison of police, who are bound by law to protect and serve, to criminals who get arrested and prosecuted for their crimes, is the epitome of false equivalency. And McLay’s “copsplaining” of abuse and brutality continued in the coming days.
Since 2012, community activists and political leaders had been calling for Officer David Derbish, the man who shot Ford, to be put on desk duty. These calls intensified once the Department of Justice began investigating the shooting.
But McLay wouldn’t initially remove Derbish from the streets, and when he finally did, it had nothing to do with community concerns. Instead, he wrote an open letter to the “Community” (read: black people) on Christmas Eve stating, “The assassination of two officers in New York now has me extremely concerned about the potential for similar violence and for the safety of our officers.”
McLay continues later in the letter, providing a roundabout explanation for his decision: “At this point, however, for the integrity of the Police Bureau, I need to make this formal. Until the U.S. Department of Justice investigation is complete, our officer has been assigned to desk duty. He is not being so assigned for punitive reasons.”
In other words, it is OK to continue to let abusive police who are costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars to roam the streets, but a crime against police in another state means that cops need more protection, not citizens.
All of these actions took place before McLay took the picture that made him a folk hero. And since the #EndingWhiteSilence Twitpic went viral? The chief apologized to the police union, argued in favor of stop-and-frisk policing and quietly shut down his Twitter account after too many questions about contradictions between his photo and his policies.
In this era of raw nerves, protests and increased tensions, Americans really want leadership. It’s natural for the public and the media to desperately seek out examples that appear to affirm that our nation is changing for the better.
But if our desire for quick answers, accessible leaders and hashtag activism takes the place of real investigation and substantive change, the nation is done a disservice. Is it really considered speaking out against racism when the police chief protects violent cops over innocent citizens?
Can he be called an example of good policing when he backs down to a bullying union and supports long-debunked policing strategies that disproportionately harm people of color?
Or does a viral picture taken with a bunch of activists in a coffee shop outweigh the actual actions and policies on the ground? It’s important as this national dialogue continues that we remember it is policies and commitment that matter, not just photo ops and hashtags.
While a picture can be worth a thousand words, if it gives us a distorted image, the picture isn’t worth much at all.
Jason Johnson is a professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio and an analyst for CNN, MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and Fox Business News. Follow him on Twitter.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.