Chief of Penn's finest

Thomas Rambo

Under Thomas Rambo, the neighborhood and campus are safer, but not just because crime is down. The newly accredited department has instituted safety measures on the streets and security measures on campus.

Let’s start out by disposing of the question everyone asks the chief of the Penn Police: Do you get kidded about your name? “What I get is just that question,” Thomas Rambo said. “That’s about it. ‘I guess you get kidded about your name.’ Then they go, ‘Well, what do they say?’”

They probably don’t say much, for Rambo is about as far from Sylvester Stallone’s hungry-for-revenge Vietnam vet as it is possible to get. The affable 38-year-old is eager to show off the department he runs and takes pride in the way it has gone about making the campus and the area near it safer.

The pride is justifiable. While Rambo has served as Penn’s top cop for less than a year, the 16-year veteran officer is part of the team put together by then-Police Chief Maureen Rush—now vice president for Public Safety—that improved the department’s operations from top to bottom. That improvement led to accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) last year, making Penn the first and only university police department in Pennsylvania to earn accreditation and one of 29 accredited college and university police forces in the country.

Thomas Rambo

The chief of the Penn Police is proud of how his force has improved safety on campus. But he also acknowledges that safety is everyone’s job—one that is never finished.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

The recipient of numerous commendations for police work, Rambo steadily rose through the ranks after arriving at Penn from the Jenkintown Police Department. He patrolled on motorcycles and bicycles; commanded the Special Response Team for handling serious crimes, and managed the department’s Early Response Team. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games selected Rambo to train and supervise volunteer law enforcement personnel from around the world during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

But Rambo is not one to rest on his laurels.

Q. Have the events of Sept. 11 changed how the Penn Police operate in any way?
Sept. 11 has created challenges for all law enforcement. It created challenges for all people that handle special events. It takes longer to plan special events. We need to secure certain areas of the campus, but not secure them so much that people’s freedom of movement is severely restricted. So that’s created unique challenges for the University as a whole.

Q. You mention special events as an example. Were any extra measures taken for this year’s Penn Relays?
We’ve taken a look at stadium and event security since Sept. 11. We’ve put restrictions on certain things being brought into [Franklin Field], large bags and coolers, things of that nature. Those restrictions have been met with cooperation by people giving the events. Additional security has been placed at those events, uniformed and non-uniformed security. A lot of planning has gone into the Penn Relays, Spring Fling, also all the other events throughout the course of the year.

Q. How did Spring Fling go this year?
I think Spring Fling went well. There’s always a concern with Spring Fling [because] some people use it to drink to excess, to create problems. In years past, we’ve had problems with off-campus parties where potentially thousands of people would congregate outside particular houses, and it took some effort to disperse the disorderly crowds. Once parties start going out into the street, cars can’t get by, people may get hit by cars, people may be intoxicated. We need to close down those things. This year, the people in the houses were much more cooperative with the police, the crowds were much more cooperative, and we did not have to break up as many parties off campus as we had to do [last year].

Q. Speaking of people getting hit by cars, pedestrian safety is now a hot issue. Are we taking any steps to improve pedestrian safety on campus?
Vehicle and pedestrian safety is one of the most important issues that we want to address. We have looked at many things that have caused some of these vehicle accidents. Many of the issues are involving speed of the vehicles, people not following the signage. If it says “No Turn on Red” at an intersection, people are still turning while people are in the intersection.

And it’s also people crossing the street where they’re supposed to cross the street.

What we have done to address the speed issue [is] we have placed a speed trailer [an electronic sign informing motorists of their speed, on Walnut east of 33rd]. Our goal is to slow people down prior to coming into the University community.

We have also increased the number of tickets [written for traffic violations]. That effort has resulted in a 21 percent decrease in vehicle accidents this quarter.

Q. It seems to me that one simple thing we could do on Walnut Street is to throw the stop light at 33rd Street out of sync with the others.
There are several things being looked at in reference to [traffic and pedestrian safety] that Penn does not necessarily have all the control over. … [We are working] with the city Streets Department to ensure that future traffic calming measures are thought of and put into place.

Q. Such as…?
Well, there’s the stoplight issues with the city; there’s also bump-outs like on Spruce Street. If you notice, on Spruce Street at certain intersections, [the sidewalks] come out at the corner so that people spend less time crossing.
One other thing I want to touch on while we’re talking about traffic safety is our Buckle Up program (Current, Nov. 8, 2001). We received a grant [from the state] for that. We’re the first university law enforcement agency in the state to receive this grant.
During the course of the year, we [are doing] four waves of education and enforcement on safety belts. If you’re stopped for a traffic violation, you receive a citation if you’re not wearing your seat belt. And we also do a survey on safety belt usage. During the last wave, I believe, there was a 9 to 10 percent increase in the use of safety belts during the survey.

Q. What does your CALEA accreditation represent, and what did you have to do to get it?
It’s an evaluation of all your policies and procedures, and really standardizing how you operate. You try to incorporate best practices for your law enforcement agency that are tested nationwide.

It really adds a degree of professionalism to the department. People know what they’re supposed to do, when they’re supposed to do it. Confidence is higher in the department when you belong to an accredited law enforcement agency, and it’s an honor.

Q. How has the department changed since you joined it 16 years ago?
The current administration has been so supportive. We’re really as good as the support we get, and we get a lot of it. Technology has improved, equipment has improved, our training has improved, and that’s what leads up to accreditation.

The relationship with the Philadelphia Police [Department] has improved dramatically. And the caliber of people are great.

Q. What are some of the challenges the department faces going forward?
We can’t rest on saying that crime is low. We’ve achieved some success in our initiatives, but we can’t stop there. We want that to go even lower.

We want to make sure we include all the various community groups in our initiatives—the neighborhood associations, the student groups, faculty and staff groups, so that they see what we’re doing when we decide to put on a new program, they know what it is ahead of time as opposed to issues being sprung on them.

Originally published on May 9, 2002