By SHANNON O. WELLS
Jessica Urban’s passion for riding on two wheels started early — a pastime based strictly on fun and freedom.
“My dad taught my brother and I how to ride dirt bikes, and then it evolved into whenever I got my driver’s license, I got my first motorcycle,” the Verona, Pa., borough native recalls. “And then it evolved into whenever I got out of college, I got another motorcycle, and it was for joy riding. That was a hobby and something to do in my spare time.”
It wasn’t until Urban started applying for law enforcement jobs that she glimpsed a way to ride right into a fulfilling career. “I saw motorcycle police officers before, but I didn’t ever think anything of it. I saw that University of Pittsburgh had a motorcycle unit, and I remember saying to my dad, ‘Hey, they have a motorcycle unit. Maybe I can try out?’”
Now approaching her seven-year mark on the Pitt Police force, Urban can point to her promotion to sergeant in April and ongoing status as Pitt’s only female motorcycle officer — and one of the very few in Pennsylvania — as vindication for following her cycling bliss.
“I would definitely say it’s all been positive,” she says of entering the still male-dominated world of motorcycle cops. “I obviously have to go through the same things that my male counterparts have to go through. It’s all the same training. All the same everything.”
In the motorcycle officer world, Urban says she’s “not a ‘female,’ per se, but whenever (students and citizens) see my hair under my helmet or I have my helmet off, it is usually more of a surprise: ‘Hey, you’re a girl!’ (or) ‘Girl Power!’ Or whenever I’m parked and I have my helmet off, they want to come talk to me. And that just makes me feel good because I want the younger female generation to realize they have opportunities too, and they can do whatever they set their mind to.”
When not patrolling campus or working Pitt-related events, Urban, who has a history degree from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, serves as coordinator for Pitt Police’s participation in Special Olympics. She also oversees the Physical Fitness/Officer Wellness Program, is a member of the Honor Guard and serves as a field training officer.
Before joining Pitt Police, Urban served as a regular patrol officer in her hometown of Verona, about 10 miles north of Oakland. “It’s only half a square mile,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody, which is a good thing, but there’s no real opportunities (for growth). They don’t have the resources that a bigger agency would have. And that is one reason why I came to the University of Pittsburgh.”
Urban, who underwent an 80-hour certification program to ride as a Pitt officer, says the connection to community that being on motorcycle provides is invaluable.
“On a motorcycle, you’re more open,” she says, compared to being in a standard patrol vehicle. “There aren’t doors, there aren’t roofs, so when we’re out in the community, we’re more readily available. Everybody wants to talk to motorcycle police officers whether we’re on a traffic stop or we’re parked somewhere. Or even at a traffic light, people roll their window down: ‘Hey, nice motorcycle.’ ‘I like that color!’ ‘What year is that?’”
Urban’s riding abilities don’t go unnoticed by her colleagues, including Lt. James Kenna, a 25-year Pitt Police veteran.
“I’m particularly proud of her ability to ride the motorcycle,” he said in late June. “I rode with her yesterday, and I’m completely comfortable riding next to her and close to her. She’s really a skilled rider and doing a great job … (Urban’s) been an athlete most of her life and she’s competitive in nature, and you can tell that when she goes to do something, she’s going to do it as best she can all the time, every time.”
And that extends well beyond her finesse on one of the department’s six motorcycles. “I think what makes her a good officer is she genuinely cares about people,” Kenna adds. “And she genuinely cares about the image of the University and the University police. She just does a really good job of treating people the way they deserve to be treated.”
Starting her Pitt-related tenure patrolling UPMC Shadyside hospital, Urban was absorbed back into afternoon-shift patrol responsibilities on the main campus. This provided an opportunity to get involved with fundraising events for Special Olympics, an aspect of the job Urban finds deeply rewarding.
“I’m a big proponent and supporter of Special Olympics,” she says. “We fundraise and do events and are involved in the Law Enforcement Torch Run, the Polar Plunge and various other events that go on throughout the year. Pitt has been a great advocate for Special Olympics and has allowed us to participate and be involved.”
Urban serves on the board of the annual Torch Run, an approximately 150-mile, segmented, non-competitive run that drew more than 500 participants May 10 to 12, raising more than $50,000 in the process, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania reported on its website. It’s opportunities like this Urban was hungry for when she left her hometown police force to serve the Pitt campus.
While her pre-Pitt policing roles failed to offer opportunities to “be involved in other things that aren’t just the day-to-day patrol responsibilities of enforcing the law and the rules and regulations,” now Urban relishes “the opportunity to have outreach into the community. And I think that’s huge, especially in law enforcement today,” she says. “And we need to build those relationships with the community that we serve.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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