Relays to put Penn's top cop through her paces

Maureen Rush, Penns vice president for public safety, and campus Police Chief Mark Dorsey with some of the electronic gear used by the force. Rush is a former Philadelphia police officer.
Maureen Rush, Penns vice president for public safety, and campus Police Chief Mark Dorsey with some of the electronic gear used by the force. Rush is a former Philadelphia police officer.
Posted: April 20, 2009

Maureen Rush walks softly and carries a Glock.

She also plays drums in a classic-rock band, sings alto in her church choir, and enjoys a good bottle of Italian wine. When she's on the job, however, Rush's vibe can best be described in four syllables.

Don't mess with Mo.

Nobody does. As vice president for public safety at the University of Pennsylvania, Rush commands a staff of 175 and a $21 million budget. Both have doubled under her tenure.

Penn's top cop also stars in a CBS series, sort of. Lilly Rush, the lone female Philadelphia homicide detective on Cold Case, was named after Rush by executive producer Meredith Stiehm, a 1990 graduate.

Rush's roster of 116 officers - including a SWAT team - makes up the third-largest sworn campus police force in the country, behind those at Temple and No. 1 Howard University, according to the Department of Justice.

Sixty percent are ex-Philly cops, as is their boss, an 18-year veteran of the thin blue line. Eight percent are women. They all pack heat.

Rush & Co. will be a highly visible presence beginning Thursday at the 115th annual Penn Relays, the world's largest annual track-and-field meet.

Along with 16,000 athletes, crowds in Franklin Field are expected to swell to more than 50,000 by Saturday, says relays director Dave Johnson.

As usual since 9/11, security will be tight. Working with the Department of Homeland Security, Penn police will sweep the stadium for explosives and radiological agents. Every fan will be "wanded." The city's bomb squad will be on site.

"We take our job very seriously," says the Roxborough-born Rush, 55, named chief in 2000. "We're really risk managers in everything we do. We strive for zero tolerance on all risks."

In Penn's University City patrol area - 30th to 43d Streets and Market Street to Baltimore Avenue - total crime is down 19 percent in the first three quarters of fiscal 2009 compared with the same period in 2008, according to university figures.

That includes a 29 percent drop in crimes against people and 17 percent in crimes against property. The biggest crime on campus, by far, is unattended theft, particularly laptops and bicycles, Rush says.

The starship

At Penn's public-safety headquarters at 4040 Chestnut, the newly revamped communications center feels like an air-traffic control tower, or the Starship Enterprise.

Dozens of computer monitors flash continuous images from 90 outdoor surveillance cameras - a "virtual patrol" of the campus and beyond.

A large plasma screen can bring up 12 cameras at once, which can help enormously in tracking a suspect, for example.

The control room also scans more than 600 indoor cameras. All images are digitally taped and held temporarily for investigative and prosecutorial purposes.

The technology upgrade was just one of many notches in Rush's baton. She also led the way in improving officer training, increasing lighting on campus, and creating Penn's emergency-alert system and crisis-management plan.

Campus security is a critical issue for all urban colleges, particularly after the mass fatal shootings last year at Northern Illinois University and in 2007 at Virginia Tech.

"It's one of the top questions we hear from parents of prospective students," says Eric Furda, 44, Penn's dean of admissions and a 1987 alumnus.

"If the family isn't comfortable about the campus environment or the overall community environment, we may not even see an application from that student. The conversation could end at the dinner table."

Penn's neighbor, Drexel, and Temple, in North Philadelphia, are the only other area colleges with their own armed police. Both are run by former Philadelphia cops.

Temple has 122 sworn officers and a $12 million budget. No SWAT team, but it does have a bomb-sniffing black lab named Jake, says director Carl Bittenbender, 58, one of Philly's finest from 1970 to '96.

To Ray Betzner, Temple's assistant vice president for university communications, there's no such thing as too much security. His son was a senior at Virginia Tech when a deranged student killed 32 people before taking his own life.

"I'm glad every day that we have a strong security force here," says Betzner, 52. "I don't know if I'm speaking as the father of a Virginia Tech student or a Temple employee. I have no qualms about saying it."

Drexel approved the establishment of a private police force in February. Sixteen sworn, armed officers began patrols March 15.

Strong bearing

When Rush joined the Philadelphia police in 1976 as a member of the federally mandated first group of female cops, there was no welcome wagon. They were harassed from the moment they entered the academy.

"The men made it very clear you weren't going to make it," says Rush, who at 5-foot-7 presents a strong physical bearing. "They did everything in their power to wash you out."

At the 25th District, supervisors called Rush obscene names to her face, she says. "In those days, they said there were only two categories for women cops - lezzies or whores."

Unlike male rookies, who worked in patrol cars with veteran officers, women were assigned street beats in the most dangerous neighborhoods, she says. They walked solo, with ill-fitting uniforms and no winter coats.

Some dropped out. Not Rush.

"I don't quit," she says. "I don't quit anything in life. I was going to see this through, and when it was over, I'd do something else."

Despite the lacerating early years, Rush loved being a cop. She still does. "It was action-packed, and I'm an adrenaline junkie. You could right the wrongs and help people."

By the time she left the force in 1994, Rush was a well-respected, openly gay lieutenant. Her de facto coming out had taken place years earlier, under tragic circumstances.

When Rush's life partner lost the couple's daughter in childbirth, a fellow officer asked Rush if she wanted the sad event noted in a department-wide e-mail. She said yes.

At the time, "I wasn't thinking about coming out," Rush recalls. "All I was thinking about was that I lost my daughter." Officers packed the Funeral Mass. "It was unbelievable," she says.

Her partner later bore another daughter, Amanda, now 14. The couple has since parted.

When Rush signed on with Penn as director of victim support and special services, her police colleagues told her that she had handcuffed her sanity.

"They're civil-service animals," Rush explains. "They said, 'Oh, my God, what if they fire you?' I said, 'Look, I've only gotten promoted in this environment. Can you imagine what I could do there?' "

And she has. Without firing a shot.


Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-5626 or gshister@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister

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