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January 8, 1998

New police chief to assume duties Feb. 1

For years, Pitt police have pulled over motorists who drive recklessly along streets bordering the Oakland campus. But because of legal questions about the off-campus powers of University police, routine motor vehicle violations — illegal turns on red, for example — were left to City of Pittsburgh police to handle.

The respective duties of campus and municipal police are likely to change, however, under a new state law that took effect Nov. 27. The law extended the jurisdiction of campus police at Pitt and Pennsylvania's other state-related universities.

Campus police now are empowered to enforce laws and arrest suspects not only on University property, but also within a 500-yard radius of such property.

Helping to sort out the implications of that change will be among Deborah M. Furka's responsibilities when she becomes Pitt's new director of Public Safety and chief of police on Feb. 1.

"There are unanswered questions [regarding the new law] which will require detailed planning between Pitt and the neighboring police forces," Furka said during an interview last month in the office of her new boss, Assistant Chancellor Jerome Cochran.

Furka said the law should encourage even closer cooperation between the Pitt and city police, which have joined forces in recent years on projects like the joint sub-station at the corner of Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street.

Beyond clarifying jurisdiction issues and learning her way around Pitt and its 90-member Department of Public Safety, Furka said she has "no specific agenda" for her first several weeks here.

"Primarily, I'm going to be looking at the administration and operation of the department, learning and evaluating, and then making decisions from there," she said.

"Do I anticipate some changes in the department? I would say yeah, but that's pretty much normal with any administrator coming into a new department." Assistant Chancellor Cochran said he has asked Furka to look into what he called "areas of concern." He declined to identify those concerns, but emphasized that they have to do with the department's organizational structure, not campus safety.

"We're not jeopardizing the safety of the University community or our ability to deliver quality law enforcement services. It's just a question of whether the Department of Public Safety can deliver those services more efficiently," he said.

"In my own mind, I think some organizational changes are needed," Cochran continued. "I feel relieved that, rather than having to move forward and make those changes based just on my own analysis, we now have someone like Deborah, who clearly has a much broader range of experience in these matters than I do." Furka joins Pitt from Kean College in Union, New Jersey, where she has been director of public safety and chief of police since 1995. Kean is the second largest public university in New Jersey, with an enrollment of 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

"It's an urban campus, about three miles from Newark Airport and 10 miles from New York City, so we have a lot of influences from the surrounding areas coming onto campus that we have to deal with — burglaries, car thefts, drugs," Furka said. "We work closely with narcotics and auto theft [police] task forces in the area, but it really comes down to developing cooperative relationships with the surrounding law enforcement agencies and developing partnerships with the community itself to combat those problems, because the police department obviously can't do it by themselves." For 16 years prior to her appointment at Kean, Furka worked at Kent State University in a range of jobs in campus safety, security and police, culminating as the assistant to the director of police from 1991 to 1995. In this last position, Furka managed the Kent State Law Enforcement Institute, which provided advanced training to local, state and federal law enforcement officers from a number of states and Canada. Furka helped to develop certified training programs for the University of Illinois Police Training Institute and is a certified instructor for basic police training in Ohio and New Jersey. She also has done consulting work in law enforcement training, accreditation support and police force assessment. She received a B.S. degree in law enforcement administration and a master's degree in education administration from Kent State.

"I've been familiar with Pitt all my life," said Furka, who will move here with her 11-year-old son, Benjamin. "I was born and raised in Steubenville, Ohio. My parents grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. So my family is here. That was a big draw for me, personally.

"Professionally, the University represents for me an opportunity to grow in a larger law enforcement department, a department with a lot of dynamics going on with the community it serves. So for me, it came out win-win." Cochran said he was "absolutely thrilled" to find a candidate with Furka's training and education, combined with her experience at both an urban campus (Kean) and a sprawling one (Kent State). "I didn't anticipate, when I started the search, that I would be able to find a candidate with those kinds of credentials," he said.

Cochran said Furka's qualifications put her "head and shoulders" above any other candidate he interviewed, man or woman. Furka herself said she has never suffered gender discrimination, despite spending her career in a male-dominated profession.

"People in policing, for the most part, really tend to see things in genderless terms," she said. "You almost have to do that, in order to fulfill the oath you swore to. For myself, I've never felt held back or hindered because I'm a woman. If there was something that I wanted to pursue, or some area of policing that I wanted to engage in, I went for it." Furka said she expects that pattern to continue at Pitt. "I plan on going in and doing the job I was hired to do," she said. "My whole philosophy of managing is that you treat people with dignity and respect and courtesy, and you expect that of the people who work with you. I find that works out very well." Cochran suggested that the credentials of the Pitt police force as a whole may be upgraded during Furka's tenure. "Currently, we don't require our officers to have degrees in law enforcement or administration of justice or some similar program," he said. "A significant number of people within the department do have degrees, but it hasn't been a policy. I think we need to take a look at whether we should strengthen the educational requirements for our police officers." Furka said only that, "I haven't had the opportunity to look at any personnel files to evaluate the training they [Pitt police] have received, or their salaries. That's part of the homework reading I plan to do" before starting work in February.

The new police chief also said she wasn't qualified yet to comment on morale among Pitt rank-and-file police officers, who worked without a contract during the mid-1990s while their union leaders wrangled with University officials. Cochran said: "Deborah and I have not specifically discussed the history of unresolved contract matters during that period of years." He attributed the impasse to conflicts between union leaders and members of the collective bargaining unit, rather than between the union and Pitt's administration.

Furka spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of Pitt joining the small but growing number of police forces seeking accreditation through the non-profit Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc.

"It's a very long and arduous process which requires commitment from the full [police] department and community," she explained. "Basically, it comes down to complying with standards of police agency operation set by policing agencies such as the National Sheriffs Organization" — up to 436 standards for the largest departments.

Of some 15,000 police organizations in the United States, only 500 are accredited; 20 of them are college and university police forces, Furka said.

"It's a tough process," she said, "but it says to the community that we are a professional police agency delivering the kind of service that you deserve as our client." Most of the Pitt police force's clients are students, about whom Furka commented, "Part of the job of a university police officer is to help students maybe grow into better adults, and not to stigmatize them for doing things they did because they weren't thinking clearly — getting drunk and breaking a window, for example.

"In some cases like that, you can make a deal: The student will go through the judicial board process, pay for damages, maybe do some community service work, but we won't charge them for criminal damage. Unless they don't hold up their end of the bargain, and then we would charge them." The highest priority is protecting the larger University community, Furka stressed. "If a student or anyone else commits a serious crime, then obviously we have to take legal action. You have to protect the people who live and work here."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 9

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