Former Police Commissioner Kevin M. Tucker dies at 71

Posted: June 20, 2012

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin M. Tucker, who took the reins of a troubled Police Department at a low ebb in the 1980s and initiated reforms that still resonate today, died Tuesday after a 22-year battle against a brain tumor. He was two days shy of his 72d birthday.

Mr. Tucker grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and came to Philadelphia in the 1970s to head the regional field office of the U.S. Secret Service.

He had retired from the Secret Service after a 20-year career - including a stint protecting Jacqueline Kennedy and her two children in the 1960s - when Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode asked Tucker in 1986 to take the toughest job in the city - commissioner of the Police Department, which was reeling from the 1985 MOVE debacle and a corruption scandal that had reached the highest ranks.

Mr. Tucker agreed, becoming the first outsider to head the department since the 1920s.

It was a police force that was "unfocused, unmanaged, unaccountable, undertrained, underequipped," according to an independent task force created by Goode and Mr. Tucker to evaluate the department and recommend change.

And "there were at least a dozen guys in the department who thought they should have that job," said Anthony "Butch" Buchanico, an officer in the traffic division who became Mr. Tucker's driver.

"There was a lot of stonewalling at the beginning, but they finally got the message," said Buchanico. Mr. Tucker "had honor and he had courage and he had foresight. He knew the department at that time was in disarray. He knew he wasn't going to be there that long. But he knew there were good people in the Police Department and he was going to turn it over to one of them."

Several months into his 21/2-year tenure as commissioner, Mr. Tucker brought back foot patrols - Philadelphia's first step into a movement now known nationwide as community policing.

"I think the Police Department has a responsibility to try to foster a partnership with the community," Mr. Tucker said at the time. "It is very difficult to establish a relationship with a patrol car that is driving past at 30 miles an hour."

Tucker sent dozens of commanders to management seminars at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He introduced computers to a department where some sergeants had been bringing their own typewriters from home to substitute for the defective equipment at work. The department started mini-stations to get closer to neighborhoods, established guidelines against police abuse, and signed up officers for Spanish language courses.

"Kevin Tucker had the ability to make people think," said former Deputy Commissioner Bill Bergman, now vice president for operations at Temple University. "He made them think about policing, he made them think about the communities they served, he made them think through the issues that were important to doing their jobs."

Bergman, a police inspector while Mr. Tucker was commissioner, was one of about 50 people sent to Harvard for three-week training sessions.

"They taught people how to implement strategy - whether it was in the police force, business, or whatever," Bergman said. "Tucker would come up and lecture himself. . . . He was not an expert in urban policing, but he was an expert on institutions - how you implement strategy through a whole institution, how you make it react to the needs of the customer. That's what he was good at."

He also changed the relationship between police and the media. "He never looked at the press as the enemy," Bergman said. "It wasn't about Kevin Tucker, it was about the institution. . . . It was, 'How do we get the message out about the good work the police are doing?' "

Mr. Tucker stepped down in June 1988 to become a senior vice president of PNC Bank and was replaced by Willie L. Williams, a Tucker protégé who became the first black police commissioner in city history.

Mr. Tucker was diagnosed with the brain tumor in 1990 and was initially told he had just six months left to live, according to his son, Kevin D. Tucker.

"He would go back every month and get another MRI, and they'd tell him there was no change," Kevin Tucker said. "But he was passionate about life. He didn't want the diagnosis to hold him back, to keep him from making a contribution to society. He stepped down from the bank but found another way to get involved."

Mr. Tucker joined the board of managers at the Wistar Institute, a National Cancer Institute center for biomedical research, where he served more than 12 years, chairing the board from 1998 until 2005.

"His strategic mind and vision helped set us on our current path," Wistar president Russell E. Kaufman said Tuesday, "but it was his kindness and his devotion in service to others that has truly inspired us."

He was one of six children born to Irish immigrants William and Catherine Tucker. The family moved to Rahway, N.J., and Mr. Tucker attended St. Mary High School in Elizabeth.

Mr. Tucker spent three years in the Army's military police after high school, then went to what is now Kean University for his undergraduate degree, majoring in Russian history and meeting his future wife, Judy Kreshok, whom he married in 1966.

Mr. Tucker expected to become a schoolteacher, but to get through college, he worked nights as a Rahway schoolteacher. One night he collared three would-be car thieves who were wanted by the Secret Service, which led to a job offer.

Protecting the Kennedy family was Mr. Tucker's first assignment, continuing until the president's widow remarried in 1968. When Mr. Tucker left the Secret Service in the 1980s, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave him a book of President John F. Kennedy's speeches, inscribed: "To Kevin Tucker, whose humor and intelligence made our time together so memorable and missed."

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife; a daughter, Christine Tucker Boyle; three brothers; a sister; and four grandchildren.

Services are scheduled from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 21, at the Bradley Funeral Home, 601 Route 73 S., Marlton. A Funeral Mass will be 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 22, at St. Mary of the Lakes Church, 40 Jackson Rd. Medford, followed by private interment in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover, N.J.

Donations may be made to the Albert R. Taxin Brain Tumor Reserve Center at the Wistar Institute, 3601 Spruce St., Suite 242, Philadelphia 19104.

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