The shape of a police officer’s badge hasn’t changed much over the years. But its meaning certainly has to James Loftus, chief of the University’s Police Department.
“Decades ago, this was a symbol of authority,” said Loftus, pointing to the badge on his uniform. “Now it’s a symbol to be questioned, and that’s not a bad thing.” He says the best way for he and his 91 officers to earn respect is to be out talking to students, faculty and staff and “not holding ourselves separate.”
The department’s interaction with the Pitt community was seen during the annual Spring Safety Fair, held Feb. 28 at the William Pitt Union. Meetings are now underway to plan for the police role in the upcoming Bigelow Bash, 2019 Commencement, and the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. This coming summer, the force will continue its ongoing training operations.
“So much of this is about training,” said Loftus, now in his sixth year as chief. “We’re constantly learning by doing.” The standards to be on the Pitt Police force are high: In addition to receiving the same training as their municipal police counterparts, Pitt Police are required to have bachelor's degrees, rare for a police force. Loftus says it’s so the officers can remember what it’s like to be a college student and to “see things through a student’s eyes.”
The force, recently equipped with body cameras, trains regularly with the Pittsburgh Police, with whom they have a strong collaboration on many levels. Every summer they train in real-life scenarios in a controlled environment on a virtual training simulator. Similar to 3D video gaming, the simulator poses hundreds of scenarios to train cops in whether and how force should be applied in fights, threats, arguments, psychological crises, traffic stops, street encounters and other situations — day and night, indoors and outside.
All of this training goes hand in hand with a strong Community Programs Unit, whose members are continually planning safety talks, Coffee with a Cop, and other activities that strengthen a very important police-community trust. The unit was recently expanded and now includes a sergeant and seven officers.
These are the police you may see strolling through the William Pitt Union or wishing a student good luck on his midterms. But Loftus says all police on the force strive to make individual contact with people on campus.
He said the officers enjoy fielding random comments and questions from people that could range from “Hey, my uncle is a state cop in New Jersey!” to “What kind of training have you had about implicit and unconscious biases?”
Loftus says he and his force have had implicit and unconscious bias training and they need to be comfortable talking about it.
Many years ago, he said, the police culture was such that officers felt if they initiated a conversation with someone they were giving away a little of their authority. But now he says the mindset is totally reverse. “The best cops I’ve worked with were the people who could talk to anyone,” he said.
The solid police-community trust pays off in many ways, from the protestors in Oakland who thank the Chief afterwards for keeping them safe, to the boxes of donuts that show up in his building’s lobby on National Donut Day. “We get the joke,” the chief said. “And we like the joke.”
His officers also mix and mingle at a series of Pitt-hosted block parties held every September and October, designed to let Oakland residents meet their student neighbors.
Loftus is back policing in his hometown, following 29 years as head of homicide and other positions in the Miami-Dade Police Department, including its director. There, he was responsible for the safety of 2.5 million people. With 5,000 public safety employees under him, 3,500 of them cops, the stress level could soar. He and his wife, who was a police sergeant, had many interrupted evenings. “There wasn’t a single night when the phone did not ring,” he said.
Now, back on his home turf, the Lawrenceville native and Pitt alumnus likes to tell people he’s a native son. And he says what he learned in the “intense environment” of Miami has helped him in his current position.
The safety and well-being of today’s Pitt student is also hitting closer to home these days. The chief has a daughter who is a current Pitt student and another who will enroll in the near future.
Loftus sat through New Student Orientation in civilian clothes and found himself chatting to other parents. “I’m going through it too,” he told them. “This is who I am and what I do . . . and we’ll do our best to treat your kids as if they were ours.”