Angry Pittsburgh Police Reacted to this Photograph in a Troubling and Telling Way

Angry Pittsburgh Police Reacted to this Photograph in a Troubling and Telling Way

The news: Police in Pittsburgh are furious after Chief Cameron McLay was photographed holding a controversial sign on New Year's Eve. But in another bad omen for people who simply wish for respectful community policing, the only people who find the sign controversial are the cops.

The sign in question is just a simple agreement to not be super racist on behalf of activist group What's Up?! Pittsburgh:

That's it: There were no "We Can't Breathe" signs, expressions of solidarity or acknowledgement of police wrongdoing. It was merely the kind of generic statement of support for anti-racist policies in the workplace that managers often sign on to anyways. Considering the extremely poor state of race relations across the country right now, perhaps now would be an apt time for Chief McLay to try and move his department in the direction of the solution rather than the problem.

But the Pittsburgh police union reliably freaked out. According to local CBS affiliate KDKA-TV, Fraternal Order of Police head Howard McQuillan took the sign to mean, "The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers."

KDKA-TV reported that some officers were so angry they thought the photo was edited. A source told the station that the "photograph [was] potentially very destructive, with no upside." Chief McLay has been summoned to city hall to explain the incident.

In the meantime, McQuillan is angrily pressing the narrative that police officers are the real victim here, even though the sign was nothing more than a generic statement of principle. In an email forwarded to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he told the chief he had "serious concerns," saying that "by Mayor Peduto labeling us 'corrupt and mediocre' and now our current Chief insinuating that we are now racist, merely by the color of our skin and the nature of our profession, I say enough is enough!"

A microcosm of a national problem: Stating a commitment to avoid being racist shouldn't be a big deal. But with tensions between police and communities mounting after nationwide protests over excessive force, many police departments, or the unions representing their officers, are responding with reactionary right-wing rhetoric. After two officers were killed by a man who claimed a personal grudge with police over the death of Eric Garner, NYPD officers have repeatedly turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio while union head Patrick Lynch accused him of inciting murder.

It's becoming clear that some police can't take criticism without melting down, or, in the case of the anti-racism poster, even put up with the pretense that they care much about the public's concerns in the first place. McLay did have the support of Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who told the Post-Gazette, "I thought there was very little chance for someone to say this was the wrong message to send." 

Fortunately, Chief McLay (who was hired to rebuild his force's public trust) doesn't appear to have folded.

"To me, the term 'white silence' simply means that we must be willing to speak up to address issues of racial injustice, poverty, etc.," McLay said in a statement "In my heart, I believe we all must come together as community to address real world problems; and I am willing to be a voice to bring community together."

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Tom McKay

Tom is a staff writer at Mic, covering national politics, media, policing and the war on drugs. He is based in New York and can be reached at tmckay@mic.com.

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