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Pittsburgh Police Chief Weighs In On Last Week's Shootings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are sampling a nationwide debate this morning. It's a debate over what to do after the deaths of two black men at the hands of police and the killings of five police officers. Those incidents took place in Louisiana, Minnesota and then Texas. The effects are felt in every state, including Pennsylvania, where Cameron McLay is the police chief in Pittsburgh. He's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

CAMERON MCLAY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, has the past week affected your department?

MCLAY: Well, of course, this isn't a new narrative, nor is it an undue tension. I mean, it's something that really has shaped law enforcement since - really since Ferguson. And so my - you know, I began here immediately after the Ferguson effect, or Ferguson incident, if you will. And so dealing with the repercussions and rebuilding police-community relationships while building internal accountability mechanisms within the police department that the public can trust has really characterized everything I've been doing since the day I hit the ground.

INSKEEP: So this is job one - it already was job one for you, you're saying.

MCLAY: Absolutely. And police objectives throughout the country - this really has been - it was - this is the redefining moment in history for American policing.

INSKEEP: So some police departments, we're told, have been taking extra precautions after the shootings of the officers in Dallas. Are your officers taking any extra precautions?

MCLAY: Well, absolutely. I certainly made sure that my membership do its due diligence to keeping one another safe. But we also had to make sure to keep it in proper perspective - that there are - the threat has always existed. And so a recent event does certainly open the door to copycat attacks and retaliatory strikes against, you know, those perceived to - who somehow might have been involved. So of course, it upped the ante. So we have to stay focused, stay measured, but recognize that an overreaction by law enforcement would be the worst possible thing right now from the standpoint of our relationship with our communities of color.

INSKEEP: Well, how did you handle it on Friday when, in your city, as in so many cities, there were protests Friday?

MCLAY: Well, the work began immediately as the Dallas incident occurred. So we were reaching out to our faith-based leaders, our leaders in our communities of color and called together a - you know, a meeting right away on Saturday morning - recognized, of course, that this has the potential to be polarizing on both ends, where, from the perspective of law enforcement, we look at this and perceive ourselves to be under attack. And it's the worst possible place to put ourselves at a point where we're trying to build police-community relations.

But we also had to recognize and be very mindful of the fact that our black community has been feeling under siege for a long time. And so when they look at the pattern of the two shootings that immediately preceded the Dallas attack, you know, they're likewise likely to pull apart. So at no time was it more important for us to pull together.

INSKEEP: I'm told you actually marched in the protest on Friday. Is that right?

MCLAY: Well, I marched with the protesters. What we do - and it wasn't just me. My bicycle officers, the motorcycle facilitating the march, some of my supervisors - we were marching along with them for the purpose of protecting them and keeping them safe as well as establishing those lines of communication and trust so that if there were issues of concern, we could talk about them. And we could address them promptly.

You know, we won't - you know, the members of the group will recognize - you know, within the large group, there's - the vast, vast majority simply want their voices heard. They want to exercise their First Amendment right. And no one is going to know an agitator or someone who's likely to do violent things better than those amongst the group. So it's as much an issue of public safety as it is a show of respect for the First Amendment rights of any particular group that happens to be marching.

INSKEEP: You know, Chief McLay, in this program, we hear from Jonah Goldberg, a writer for National Review, who noted that because, in rapid succession, there have been deaths of civilians and deaths of police, that has forced a little humility onto all sides here, maybe even creates an opportunity to listen to the other side. Do you believe that's happening?

MCLAY: You know, I hadn't heard it put that way. I think that's beautifully said. Certainly, the reaction from some of my community members here, as I called a emergency meeting, is, you know - they're friends. And they're respectful. But they said chief, where were you when two young black men were killed? You didn't call an emergency meeting then.

And so that was a dose of humble pie for me, if you will, to recognize that we each have to recognize the perspective of one another - you know, respect one another's perspective and recognize that, at the end of the day, for example, we here in Pittsburgh, we all lose if we go to bunker and if we allow violence to occur. So we have to respect each other's perspective but at the same time, recognize that we have to find a place to put our pain and still come together in solidarity and to keep our community safe.

And I think that's what happened for us here Friday and Saturday. We were able to find that place in the middle. And there were a lot of people in the community that helped keep the event safe and a lot of police officers who did a great job keeping their own pain in perspective. And Bill (ph) did a great job facilitating the movement of the marchers, you know, kind of - led - made things clear what things we couldn't allow them to do. And we all worked together to keep it upright.

INSKEEP: Chief, thanks very much.

MCLAY: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay on this Monday morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.