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Police chief criticized for holding sign challenging racism

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay addressed issues of race and policing after being criticized for a photo in which he held a sign challenging racism.
New Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay addresses a news conference on Sept. 12, 2014, in Pittsburgh, Pa. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
New Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay addresses a news conference on Sept. 12, 2014, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay is fielding criticism after he was photographed during the city’s New Year’s Eve parade holding a sign stating: “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.”

The chief explained in a letter sent to the entire police bureau on Friday that the sign belonged to an activist at the event. During the parade, McLay stopped at a coffee shop, where he encountered a group and spoke with them “about how implicit, or unconscious bias results in misunderstanding on all sides, and how the need is for dialogue to clear up misunderstanding,” he wrote in the statement. Those in the group asked him to hold the sign, and he agreed to do so, McLay added.

The photo sparked outrage and accusations from some, including Pittsburgh police union president Howard McQuillan. “The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers,” he told KDKA. McQuillan has not responded to msnbc’s request for comment.

McLay apologized in his Friday statement for offending anyone, but stood by his action. “To me, the term ‘white silence’ simply means that we must be willing to speak up to address issues of racial injustice, poverty, etc. 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,” he noted.

The police chief, who was hired by Mayor William Peduto his past September, has the mayor's support on the issue. “Chief McLay has been talking about ways the community and the police can come together to address racial issues from the very beginning of his time here in Pittsburgh, and Mayor Peduto completely supports him — that's why he hired him,” spokesman Timothy McNulty wrote in an email to msnbc.

McLay advised officers in his letter to “simply approach your job mindfully, with a continued motivation to protect and serve,” and he said the department would provide further training on issues of racial sensitivity.

“Please beware also, race impacts how we view one another, and unconscious bias applies to how we deal with the public. It can also impact how we judge one another; I intend we will confront both through training,” McLay added.

The police chief also shared much of his statement on social media. He acknowledged racial disparities in the letter to officers, as well as in a Facebook post.

“The reality of US policing is that our enforcement efforts have a disparate impact on communities of color. This is a statistical fact,” he wrote. “You know, as well as I, the social factors driving this reality. The gross disparity in wealth and opportunity is evident in our city. Frustration and disorder are certain to follow. The predominant patterns of our city's increased violence involves black victims as well as actors. If we are to address this violence, we must work together with our communities of color.”