Veteran shares experience of police reform in ‘The Blue Continuum’

Maria Sonnenberg, Senior Life – Mar 8, 2022

During his tenure as one of longest serving metropolitan police chiefs in the nation, Robert McNeilly Jr. has pretty much seen it all when it comes to policing. 

At a time when police departments nationwide are facing scrutiny, McNeilly offers answers with “The Blue Continuum,” his newly published book on what can be done to fix issues in policing today.

The retired Marine spent 37 years in law enforcement, 18 of these as chief of police for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, overseeing 1,200 officers and 300 civilians.

“I worked my way up through the ranks,” said McNeilly, who as he was working his way up, also happened to meet his future wife, Catherine.

Catherine, who retired as a police commander, wanted to move to Florida, but McNeilly was intent on North Carolina.

“We compromised and moved to Florida,” McNeilly said jokingly about their move to Indian River Colony Club. 

The Pittsburgh native joined the Marines out of high school, but his heart was in law enforcement. After completing his tour of duty, he returned to his hometown, ready to join the men in blue.

“I was destined for it,” he said.

He might have been ready, but the police department wasn’t, since it did not offer testing for several years, which McNeilly whiled away working for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad.

Eventually, the tests were available and McNeilly signed on for the duration, going through the range of police work, from patrol and traffic to investigations and special operations.

As police chief, McNeilly became involved in Department of Justice negotiations that led to the first policing “pattern or practice consent decree” case, which relied on his own department accountability and training blueprint to enhance police integrity and prevent conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional rights.  

“I believed we would be better off making reforms,” he said. 

“The Blue Continuum” presents lessons McNeilly learned on the job. The book is particularly resonant in an age when the national dialogue questions police actions and calls for strict law-and-order policies.

McNeilly is no stranger to disrupting the status quo. In fact, he questioned some practices from the get-go.

“When I interviewed for the police chief job, I presented a list of changes I felt were needed,” he said. 

When the Department of Justice approached Pittsburgh with the need for policy change, McNeilly welcomed it. 

“To fight it would have been fighting the reforms I wanted to make,” he said. 

McNeilly did not intend “The Blue Continuum” to be a biography or case study, but rather an operator’s manual for the almost 18,000 state and local law enforcement bureaus in the country. The title refers to a color-coded system McNeilly developed for employee assessment. The continuum ranges from sky blue, the excellent 20 percent responsible for 80 percent of good policing, to the 2 percent who fall under midnight blue, the color used for officers who should never have been hired. 

“The police agency providing the proper policy training, supervision and discipline will improve the performance of five of the groups and weed out those in the sixth,” McNeilly wrote.

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