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July 20, 2006

Pitt police blue & golden this year

Plenty can happen in 50 years of police work on a busy university campus. The University of Pittsburgh Police Department, which marks its 50th year of service this summer, has grown from a tiny group of uniformed officers and watchmen known as the Pitt Security Department to the third-largest police force in Allegheny County.

Over the years, policing has changed from directing traffic, checking for unlocked doors and providing building security to more highly specialized work with officers trained in emergency management and hazardous materials. Others are specially trained in protecting dignitaries and have escorted everyone from U.S. presidents and vice presidents to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

But, in spite of the additional training that’s become necessary in a post-9/11 world, some aspects of the officers’ work hasn’t changed.

Officers still walk their beats around campus buildings, respond to worried parents by tracking down students with “Call your mother” messages, unlock buildings for faculty and staff, and police the residence halls, getting to know the students in the process.

Prior to the establishment of the University’s in-house police force, first one city police officer and later two (plus four custodian watchmen employed by the University) were assigned to handle campus security, said Lt. Richard Parfitt, who has been updating department history in honor of its golden anniversary. Records show one of the city cops handled daytime traffic duty; the other took the 4 p.m.-midnight shift.

Old records and memorabilia continue to be unearthed as the department prepares to move next year to a new public safety building on Forbes Avenue near Halket Street. Chief Tim Delaney, a self-proclaimed history buff, has for years rescued old photographs and other department memorabilia from file drawers or forgotten corners and put them on display.

An early 1960s black-and-white photo of clean-shaven men lined ramrod-straight for inspection outside the old Varsity Hall is among several vintage shots that the chief has displayed on the walls of the department’s Posvar Hall offices. Less-formal photos show uniformed officers with pencil-thin ties, military dress caps and shiny badges. Delaney’s avocation led to the department’s rediscovery of its anniversary date. A typewritten letter dated July 17, 1956, surfaced a few years back and now hangs on the wall. The memo from William G. Fisher, director of the Physical Plant, to T.J. Hamilton, director of Athletics, established the new police department effective Aug. 1, 1956, “in order to centralize all police authority and activity within the University.”

Four men in Hamilton’s department were named to the police force and former Wilkinsburg police auxiliary lieutenant Charles Ray, assistant to Pitt’s superintendent of Building and Grounds, was named a lieutenant in command of the new department. (He remained in charge until 1970.)

In addition to the transfer of Pitt’s existing watchmen to the force, a dozen new officers were hired. The initial force was made up of white men. The first African-American officer wasn’t added until1962, and women didn’t become part of the force until the 1970s.

Records from the department’s infancy show that some issues are timeless. “Came to rescue of one city policeman fighting two drunks” and “Investigate immoral solicitation of faculty member,” appear on a 1958 police activity report. Another item, however, “Saved Dr. Salk’s chickens by discovery of defective thermostat,” may have changed the course of history.

Instructions to officers in 1960 included a prescribed course of action for responding to “pantie raids.”

“Such action is basically disorderly conduct and should be handled initially by police,” it stated.

While Pitt was no hotbed for campus radicalism, during the 1960s and ’70s the police force weathered sit-ins, protests and unrest, including the day in January 1969 when students of the Black Action Society seized control of a computer center in the Cathedral of Learning until their demands were met.

As Pitt has grown, so has the department.

Formed with an initial budget of less than $89,000, Pitt’s police department now has a budget of some $7 million, Delaney said. The department includes 74 commissioned police officers, including 58 patrol officers. Eighty percent are in the uniformed division; investigative and plainclothes officers make up the remainder. All must be college graduates in addition to meeting the same state standards as municipal officers.

Of 1,653 incidents listed on an internal report during the final half of 1958, most were calls for doors left open or unlocked.

Now the Pitt dispatchers field between 30,000 and 35,000 calls a year — most of them for service issues such as employees locked out of buildings or worried parents who have not heard from their children.

Federal law now requires campus crime statistics be reported for offenses such as rape, murder, theft, assault and liquor, drug or weapons law violations. Pitt’s 2004 figures, the most recent available, show 1,310 offenses.

From the early days when the department had one car (“It wouldn’t go up the hill on DeSoto Street, we had to push it up,” recalled a former Pitt police officer), the department now has nearly two dozen police vehicles plus nine two-wheelers — four motorcycles and five bicycles.

Today, officers have traded military dress-style caps for baseball caps and the more casual combination of bike helmets and cycling shorts have replaced the formal double-breasted uniform for some.

“What’s really evolved is the specialization,” Delaney said. “Now you need to be certified and trained in certain areas.”

Early in the life of the police force, specialization meant being the officer who drove the department’s motorcycle.

Today, Pitt’s motorcycle officers represent only the tip of the specialization iceberg. Some teach self-defense against rape; still others are plainclothes investigators or bicycle officers. And today’s officers are trained as first-responders to large-scale emergencies, and are taught CPR and first-aid as part of the job.

Further specialization is on the horizon.

The original security department members likely never dreamed of computers as they patrolled the campus nor imagined officers would need computer skills as part of police work. But as the new millennium unfolds, technical training is becoming increasingly important, said Commander Kathy Schreiber. “Our officers have to be able to function well with computer programs, understand computer crime and solve computer crime.”

Creativity and flexibility are essential now as officers undertake regular specialized training and deal with the diverse and changing population of the University community. Remaining static is not an option.

“This place makes you change,” Delaney said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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