Walking the Line

Being too ‘blue’ can make one blind

to other colors.

Chief of Police Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh
Chief of Police Cameron McLay, Pittsburgh

It’s often a fine and narrow line police chiefs must walk between being the “top cop” and the community’s chief of police. Too often in the past, the safest walk for a police chief has been to be the top cop – “My officers can do no wrong!” Being too “blue” can make one blind to other colors.

The following article contains an excerpt from a recent edition of “Pittsburgh Magazine.” In it, author Patrick Doyle captures that difficult walk. Being a new chief in an unfamiliar department, Cam McLay, former Madison, Wisc. police captain, deftly walks forward.

“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…

“'[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…’

“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…

“’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.’”

Read the full article HERE.