Q&A with Maureen Rush

Maureen Rush

Peter Tobia

As Penn’s top cop, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush oversees six departments—including the Penn Police, Fire & Emergency Services, and Special Services—and a staff of 176 men and women, sworn and civilian, devoted to keeping the University and surrounding communities free from harm.

The Penn Police Department, made up of 116 sworn officers, is the largest private police department in Pennsylvania, and the second largest among all private universities in the United States.

Born in the Swampoodle section of Philadelphia, the former home of the city’s famed Connie Mack Stadium at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue, Rush grew up in Roxborough. She came to Penn in 1994 as director of Victim Support and Special Services, after serving 18 years with the Philadelphia Police Department.

During her nearly two decades at Penn, Rush has helped modify the Division of Public Safety into a national standard for colleges and universities. For the past six years, Security Magazine has ranked Penn No. 1 in the higher education sector on the publication’s “Security 500” list.

In 1976, Rush was among the first group of women to enter the Philadelphia Police Academy. Gender equal the 1970s were not, but Rush soldiered through, earning the respect of her colleagues and shattering glass ceilings with her nightclub. She smashed another last September when she became the first woman elected to serve as president of the Philadelphia Police Foundation.
Rush says the decision to leave her brothers and sisters in blue at the Philadelphia Police Department was a tough one, but one she’s glad she made.

“Penn’s an exciting place to work and you’re never bored,” she says. “Public Safety is always sort of at the heart of any major issue that’s going on, whether it’s a preventive issue or it’s a crisis issue. My personality fits right into that kind of calling.”

The Current sat down with Rush to talk about why she became a police officer, her (unsuccessful) time as a decoy, and how she is never really off duty.

Q: Why did you decide to become a police officer?
A: It’s an interesting story. I was working at a bank in Center City and it was in the Penn Center concourse, so under City Hall. In 1972, ’73, there were a lot of police patrolling in that area, especially canine police. The Philadelphia Police Department at the time had 8,000 police officers, so it was a special unit called the Transit Unit. I’m a dog lover; I’m an animal lover. The police dogs would pull into the bank because they always got biscuits. We’d do little tricks, hide the biscuits in the drawer, all sorts of stuff. We knew the police very well and they were always concerned that we were going to be robbed because we were underground, right next to an escalator. It would be a great escape route.
No one in my family was in the police world at all. And at this time, there were only men on patrol. One day, a woman came in with them and they introduced her as a police officer, and I was like, ‘Really? I didn’t know there were women police officers.’ Well, there was this little unit called the Juvenile Aid Division. It was a very small group of women and normally their duty was just to do investigations of bicycle theft or missing children, but occasionally they would use [the female officers] as decoys. There were apparently a series of sexual assaults in the underground part of the train station area, and they were doing a decoy detail with this female officer. When I heard what her job was, I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a decoy. I wanted to be a rape decoy, particularly. I started putting in applications for ‘policewoman’ because that was the only thing we were eligible for at that time. In 1973, one of those women in the Juvenile Aid Division sued, through the Department of Justice, to be able to take promotion tests to be sergeant. That started a federal lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia. Frank Rizzo was the mayor and he had been the former police commissioner, and he was fighting having women on street patrol that whole time. Suddenly, they were forced, as a result of this lawsuit through the Department of Justice, to hire women, so they developed a pilot program where they had to hire 100 women and they had to take 100 new rookie women and compare them against 100 rookie males for two years. So they opened up the examination for policeman to women. I took both tests, and I got called for the policeman test first, and I became one of the first 100 women in 1976 to enter the Philadelphia Police Academy.

Q: You mentioned former Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo. A lot of people have strong opinions about him, both positive and negative.
A: The women certainly had strong opinions. He was so against us being on the street and the [pilot] program was set up for us to fail. The city did not want this to succeed, so all sorts of roadblocks were placed.

Q: What sort of obstacles did they put in place?
A: Right from the moment we hit the police academy, they put up an obstacle course that they never had before that was geared toward all upper body strength, and it was very difficult for the women because [upper body strength exercises] weren’t something you do usually. When we hit the street, normally in every police department, pretty much any job, you’re not hired and then thrown to the wolves. You have a partner and you’re trained. It’s a field-training officer program. For those few years, the city decided they didn’t want to do that any longer, that we would not work with veteran officers. We pretty much worked alone. We were assigned to seven particular police districts throughout the City of Philadelphia. They were all the high-crime districts. I worked the 25th District, which was at Front and Westmoreland in North Philadelphia and, for the most part, for the first three years, walked the beat on nightwork particularly. We worked three shifts back then. On the two shifts of nightwork, I could be guaranteed I would be either at the Broad and Erie, or Germantown and Lehigh beat. There were two block beats; there was nothing open at night. It was the coldest winter in history in 1976 and we were not allowed to go inside. There was nowhere to go to the bathroom. It was really an endurance test of who’s going to quit. So, it wasn’t working so well. All the women were hanging tough, so they added a little sweetener. They came out with this legal document to all the women and said, ‘If you sign this document, you can transfer over to the inside job of policewoman where you can have your hair long, you can wear makeup.’ There were all sorts of restrictions. My hair is long right now compared to what it had to be back then. If you signed this form, you could not have a pay cut, just go right into that job. Be warm. This was the middle of the winter. Thirty women did. And that document said, ‘In my opinion, women are not fit to work street patrol.’ And 30 women signed that. And those 30 women went inside and the rest of us were still walking the beat. The male officers were told to not back us up, to not help, but human nature being as it is, people will try to help people, normally. There were a couple nitwits that didn’t, but for the most part, most of the male cops were helpful.
That pilot program actually got extended. It went from ’76 to about ’79, and then it was finally in court and the Justice Department told the City of Philadelphia that women are here to stay. With that, they ended up hiring more women. Ultimately, in 1980, we were finally allowed to transfer to other places throughout the police department. That was after a new commissioner started. His name was Mort Solomon. Commissioner Solomon basically accepted that women were here to stay and treated us just like any other police officer at that time.

Q: You were a member of the Philadelphia Police Department from 1976 to 1994. How long did it take before you felt like you were being treated equally?
A: That’s a double-edged question because, the city? Not until after 1980. But with the squad that I was in, within the first year it started to gradually [improve]. Supervisors? No. Supervisors, their job was to get us fired or killed. Literally. They put us in very precarious situations. But the men, there was a percentage of them that really came along pretty quickly. I had a couple close calls in the very beginning and they liked the way I reacted and thought, ‘Well, if she survived those things, then she’s OK.’ The supervisors never really came along until after we were finally released from our little pilot program. Gradually, over the years, what I saw was the younger generation of males coming on the job had no issues when I became a supervisor. They were fine. The younger generation male is more accepting, I think, of change.

Q: You spoke with the Current in 1998 about your two years working undercover with the anti-crime unit. You said, ‘I was a failure as a decoy. I couldn’t get robbed to save my life.’
A: That’s right. We were undercover for robbery and burglary detail. That was observing and arresting people. Every once in a while, they would have a specific issue. There was a point in time where there were a lot of chain snatches going on. This was probably ’84, ’85, in Center City. They told me to dress up in various outfits. St. John’s Church right on Clover Street, the 12th and Market area—that was a big area for these problems. I was there for a month and nobody would rob me. I put myself in alleys. You had your backup from a distance and the stakeout squad. I was dressed in every outfit you can imagine, from miniskirts to doctor’s outfits, just trying to be part of the community of Center City. I got in trouble one night with a woman who was a lady of the evening working at 13th and Spruce. She thought I was new in town taking over her spot and she got a little mad at me. Finally she started saying, ‘You’re not a working girl.’ I kept arguing with her because I didn’t want to blow my cover, and finally I said, ‘Alright, listen. I’m not in the morals squad. We’re not here to bust you. We’re here to get the guys that are robbing you.’ Because they would, they would sometimes take the money off the women. So I finally said to her, ‘How’d you know?’ She said, ‘Your heels. They’re not high enough.’ So after a month, they said, ‘Go back and do what you do best, be undercover and catch people instead of trying to be the victim.’
From that experience, when I came to Penn, I would use that in seminars to teach people street smarts about why it is that people wouldn’t rob me [when I was undercover]? It’s the way you look at people, it’s the way you walk, it’s the way you keep your head up. I even tried to do all the things opposite to that [as a decoy]—walk with my head down and divert my eyes and look scared—but it just was oozing out of me. But there is definitely a body language that we put off in the world that can help us at the train station at 40th and Market.

Q: What drew you to Victim Support and Special Services?
A: I had taken a training program with then-Lt. Gerry Leddy, who is now Capt. Gerry Leddy [of the Penn Police Department]. Through Gerry, I got to know a little bit about Penn Public Safety. It was a very different division back then, it was really more just the police and the Special Services Department. There weren’t all the multiple departments you see today. The director of Victim Support sent me the job description when it was posted. At that point, I was a lieutenant in the training bureau where I would train in-service police. Not the rookies, but people who are already police and they have to go through the state annual mandatory training. I had been developing with the state of Pennsylvania curricula on domestic violence, on ethnic intimidation or hate crimes, on verbal communication, and there were synergies between what I was teaching and what the job description was calling for. Plus, with my years of experience as a police officer, I thought it sounded like an interesting transition.
Now at the same time, I was about to be promoted to captain. I was pretty much always at the top of the heap among women police officers. I don’t think there were any [female] captains at the time. This would have been another first. I was torn because I wanted to keep going up the ranks. My initial thought was, ‘I’m really not going to take the job but I should go check it out.’ And so I had 13 interviews for that job. And by around the 10th interview, I started to want the job. When I got offered the job, it was a really hard decision and I took the plunge and I came over. Eighteen years later, I’m thrilled that I did.
I love working at Penn and I really do feel like the skills sets were transferable. As director of Victim Support, the thing that I liked about it was helping people, but the thing that I didn’t like about the job was I felt like we could better prevent crime. There was a lot of street crime at the time and one of the changes [former Penn President Judith Rodin] made in the administration was bringing on a new person to be the head of Public Safety. He reorganized the division and after two years of being Victim Support director, I moved over to become chief of police. That was 1996 and we did a major overhaul of the police department. In that one year, we added 19 police officers, which is pretty amazing for a university police department. The rest is history. But I enjoyed every assignment.

Vice President Rush

Peter Tobia

Q: What kind of overhauls were made to Public Safety in 1996?
A: We brought on four seasoned detectives from Philadelphia. Patricia Brennan, who is now director of Special Services, was one of those senior detectives. Their goal was to teach some of the younger detectives that were transferring in from patrol. We brought on a lot of seasoned police officers, not just Philadelphia police but other departments. We also opened it up to people who put themselves through private police academies and had the required regulations education-wise by the state to become police officers. We didn’t want to just hire Baby Boomers; we wanted to have all ages. As a result, we now have a robust detective division; we have a robust police department with all ages, all ethnicities, all races. It’s very diverse. Our goal is to continually make sure we’re representatives and represent the demographics of the community we serve. Pat Brennan was a classmate of mine [in the Philadelphia Police Academy]. Pat and I worked the 25th District and so we’ve known each other since 1976.

Q:You oversee the entire Division of Public Safety but you are also a senior administrator for the University. What are some of your administrative duties?
A: As an officer of the University, I’m a member of the president’s cabinet. I work closely with Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli. I’m in his senior management group. We develop the strategic goals and direction for the business side of the University. I’m happy to say that because of his leadership, we are very synergistic. For example, when Penn Park was being built, the vision of the president and what she wanted that to feel like and be like was translated to Executive Vice President Carnaroli, who, in turn, had all of us within the senior management group work together to make sure that that vision was fulfilled. The vision was for it to be an open park, yet a private park. Open to the public. Free of crime. Free of any other issues that might make it feel unsafe. As the park was being developed on the drawing board, Public Safety was at the table along with Facilities and Real Estate Services, Athletics, I could go on. It was a huge team. That’s a microcosm of what we do every day. There’s not one project that is done in a silo. The beauty of Penn and the leadership of the president and the provost and the executive vice president is that it’s very inclusive of all the members to work together to produce the best product.
The No. 1 goal of everyone in my division is to create a safe and secure environment for everyone here at Penn, and our neighbors in the community. That’s a real broad issue. It’s not just crime, it’s how the environment feels. Our police, for example, have to be kind of chameleons. They have to, on one hand, be welcoming ambassadors for Penn, and we tell them that when we hire them. When they’re driving around in the police car, that’s our brand out there. That’s Penn’s brand, not just Public Safety’s brand. They are sometimes the first people that are visually identifiable as a Penn employee, whether they’re welcoming the newest student from China or the newest parent who’s taking an admissions tour, or whether they’re helping a community member who lives at 43rd Street. They are doing all of those things and then five seconds later they may be called upon to answer a call of a crime in progress. And that’s a tough job. I always tell people who are hired here as police officers, ‘This is the toughest job you’ll ever have as a police officer because you have to be everything to everyone.’

Q: In an interview with Security Management Online, you stated, ‘Anyone signing up for a career in public safety or policing must realize that you are never really off the clock.’ It sounds like you’re never off duty. If something happens at 2 a.m., you have to respond.
A: We are 24-7. We are 365. Weekends, when everyone is off, we still have all the students here and we have people working every shift. I’m being notified, I’m on email, I’m notifying up my chain of command to Craig Carnaroli and others. If there’s an emergency situation, the crisis management team would be woken up at 2 in the morning as well. So it’s not just me. I think that’s the unique thing about Penn. We are a 24-hour environment because of our student population here. Faculty and staff can leave on Friday afternoon, but the world is still going real strong. Evenings and weekends are sometimes the most challenging times for us to provide the services we provide. But that’s across the board here. Everyone, even up to the president, we’re all 24-7. We need to know what’s going on because if there is a crisis, we have a unique team that will get involved from every level of the organization.

Q: Do you ever miss being a beat cop?
A: I sort of still am a beat cop. I’m still sworn. I’m still armed. I have an unmarked police car. I go in on jobs. That’s in my soul and that will never leave, which is why I love my job----because I get to do two jobs in one. I get to be an administrator but I also haven’t lost sight of my roots.
It’s not uncommon for me to back up a police officer who’s on a car stop or is going in on a retail theft and I’m there, I’m going in on the job. I’m on radio. Spring Fling weekend, I’m out there riding with the police. My job is to be head of Public Safety, but the police, in particular, my main leadership goal here is to continue to lead the police department and continue to grow the professionalism of the police department. I see myself as a member of the Penn Police Department. They are on the front lines, and so all the other departments within the division, their main job, along with our partners from AlliedBarton, is to support what the police do in the field, and to make sure they have the best equipment, have the best radio communications, have the best vehicles that are safe, to make sure that they are trained with the highest level of firearms training. The goal of every department within the Division of Public Safety is to really support the mission on the street.

Q: Obviously Penn is smack dab in the middle of West Philadelphia. How does Public Safety collaborate with the Philadelphia Police Department?
A: We have an extremely close collaboration with the Philadelphia Police. We have numerous memorandums of understanding of how our detectives would be responsible for what versus theirs, for our radio communications. Every day, our detectives meet with their detectives to ensure that we’re all aware of any crimes, any intelligence sharing. Something could happen at 50th Street but it’s still important for us to know about it because we might have that same example migrate down to 43rd Street. Our relationship with the Philadelphia Police could not be stronger. I’m also a member of numerous boards that support the Philadelphia Police. I’m a member of the Police Athletic League. We have a Penn Police officer assigned to the Tucker PAL Center at the Wilson School at 46th and Woodland. There are a lot of various levels of cooperation between our departments. Likewise, we have the same relationship with Drexel police and even SEPTA police.

Q: I imagine your job can be very stressful. What do you do to relax or unwind?
A: I’m in a classic rock band. My bandleader is Dr. Tony Rostain here at Penn [a professor of psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine]. That’s definitely one of my great pleasures. I was actually in two bands for a short period of time but the bass player left us. My other pleasures are working out, try to keep in shape, and running my daughter around and getting her ready to go off to college.

Q: Does your band have a name?
A: House. I sing in that band too, by the way.

Originally published on February 21, 2013