During a First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Police Chief Cameron McLay encountered some activists who were urging society to “unlearn racism.” He talked to them for a few minutes, and posed for a photo carrying a sign that says, “I Resolve To Challenge Racism @ Work. #End White Silence”:
CREDIT: WWHAT’S UP?! Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto came upon the photo while sitting at home and, viewing it as a “great way to start the new year,” promptly shared it on his own Facebook page. “I thought there was very little chance for someone to say this was the wrong message to send,” Peduto told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
But someone did. The photo swept across social media, and local police union president Howard McQuillan took the statement against racism as an affront to the entire police department, telling KDKA: “The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers.”
KDKA reports that other officers were so outraged by the photo they believed it must have been fake. McLay has even reportedly been called to a meeting at city hall to address the photo.
The group that made this sign, WWHAT’S UP?! Pittsburgh, defines itself by the belief “that racism hurts everyone and that unlearning racism is liberating for all.” It makes little reference to police or any other particular group. McLay said in a statement released after the photo was disseminated that he came upon this group in a coffee shop in what was a “great, spontaneous” moment at the time, during which they talked about unconscious bias and community relations. “Their message is not anti-anybody. It is simply a call for awareness.”
Still, McQuillan, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, responded to the sign in an email by accusing Chief McLay of “[p]andering to the community at the expense of the police community.”
The battle comes as police union leaders in New York City have become increasingly adversarial with city leadership. Police union leaders, angry with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expressed empathy with communities of color and protesters, have gone so far as to hold de Blasio responsible for the deaths of two police officers who were shot in the head in December. During a memorial service for one of those officers, hundreds, if not thousands, of cops turned their backs on de Blasio as he delivered remarks remembering slain officer Rafael Ramos as a man who “put his life on the line so other New Yorkers could live in peace.” Thousands of police officers reportedly did so again Sunday at the funeral of fellow slain officer Wenjan Liu. Police unions have even encouraged officers not to make arrests in protest unless “absolutely necessary,” resulting in a 66 percent drop in arrests compared with the same period last year.
McLay began his job as police chief just this past September, and says he was hired to resolve race relations. Like many cities, Pittsburgh has had its own use of force incidents that have eroded trust in the community, including the shooting of teen Leon Ford two years ago during a traffic stop that paralyzed Ford. McLay committed in December to place the officer on desk duty while the Department of Justice investigates the shooting. Citing statistics on disproportionate police action against African Americans, McLay has acknowledged that his own street drug enforcement “were well intended but had an impact I would not have consciously chosen.”