The two of them stood still, guns cocked and pointed at one another in a drug store in Philadelphia’s “fighting district.” It was Maureen Rush’s fifth week on the job as a Philadelphia police officer, and she was already in a standoff with a drug addict.
The man — who had long greasy hair, donning aviators and a leather jacket — had jumped behind the pharmacy counter to rummage through the shelves.
“We were screaming and yelling at each other, and he kept telling his partner to shoot me,” Rush said. “I kept thinking, ‘If he shoots me, he’s coming down with me.’”
But as many times as he threatened her, he never pulled the trigger. In the commotion, someone called the police and backup officers arrived, diffusing the situation so the two men could be taken into custody.
“The reason I’m here to tell this story is because he was so shocked that I was a woman that he couldn’t do it,” Rush said.
Maureen Rush — currently Penn’s vice president for public safety — was one of Philadelphia’s first 100 female police officers on street patrol in 1976. The pilot program tested whether women were capable of foot patrol in a city that openly attacked the concept of female police officers.
But the skeptics were disappointed, one female officer at a time. Rush broke the glass ceiling with each promotion she earned on the force. After taking a leap to Penn, she became the University’s first female chief of police and later the first female head of the public safety department. This year marks Rush’s 20th since coming to Penn, after serving 18 years in the Philadelphia Police Department.
Under Rush’s leadership, the number of public safety personnel has doubled to nearly 800 security guards, police officers and administrators to protect Penn’s 2.5 square mile patrol zone. She manages a budget of $22 million to spend across eight departments.
But making her way to vice president for public safety and handling all of its responsibilities has been no easy feat. Rush’s story is one of cold winters, undercover operations, murders and sexism. It’s also a story of ambition, empathy and trust.
Rush’s endeavors even inspired 1990 College graduate Meredith Stiehm to name the main character of the television show “Cold Case” — Lilly Rush — in homage to Penn’s top cop.
“I thought her grit was amazing. Somebody who has the nerve to go on the force in the ’70s when they were very vocal on not wanting women,” Stiehm said. “She is all take-no-prisoners, tell-it-like-it-is.”
The first 100
Maureen Rush was born in the Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia. She grew up with two older sisters and an older brother in an Irish Catholic household.
In the early 1970s, Rush worked at a bank in the Penn Center concourse that runs underneath City Hall. At the time, a string of abductions had prompted panic across the city. Women had been taken down into the dark hallways easily hidden among the subway tracks and maintenance closets where they were usually sexually assaulted.
The police department had hired women to serve as bait for abductors. As Rush worked a typical shift in her bank, she spotted a woman in the concourse who appeared to be undercover.
“I saw Vicky, the rape decoy on duty near my bank, and I asked her a million questions about what she did,” Rush said. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to be a rape decoy.’”
“I told my family, and they were so proud,” she joked.
But the obstacles to becoming a female member of the police force were immense. At the time, Philadelphia was one of the last cities refusing promotions for female officers and preventing them from patrolling on the streets.
Only men were allowed to take the “policeman test,” which offered opportunities for patrol duty and promotions. The handful of women who were on the force at all had taken a distinct “policewoman test,” restricting female officers’ responsibilities.
When one of the female officers sued the city for sex discrimination, then-Police Commissioner Joseph O’Neill testified that women were not capable of patrol work “because God, in his wisdom, made them different.”
The United States Department of Justice refused to accept O’Neill’s testimony at face value, requiring Philadelphia to study whether women were capable of patrol duty.
In a pilot program, an incoming class of women who passed the “policeman test” would be compared to a rookie class of men over two years. The results would determine the future for women in law enforcement in the city.
“It was like Beirut,” Rush said. “The city government, the mayor and the police commissioner were dead set against women being put on street patrol. From the police academy throughout my career on the street, they made everything harder for women.”
The inequities began in training, when the police department built an obstacle course geared to test upper body strength, leaving women at a disadvantage.
Women who successfully became officers were not allowed to patrol alongside veterans as the new male recruits did. These women patrolled alone, with poorly working radios in the most dangerous areas of the city — without bulletproof vests.
“We often didn’t know if the people on the other side of the radio didn’t hear us or they were playing games with us. And it was a little scary,” said Penn’s current Director of Special Services Patricia Brennan, who was also one of the first 100 female officers. “I kept thinking, are they going to understand me when I need help?”
Rush was stuck with the worst supervisor of all, Brennan said. Rush and another of the original female officers landed in his squad, but the other officer was fired almost immediately for cowardice.
“I dealt with him once every three months,” Brennan said, “and every opportunity he gave me the worst assignment and the worst radio. Maureen was dealing with that every night of the week.”
In a 1988 local news series called “Lady Law” that revisited the first 100 female officers, former mayor Frank Rizzo explained why he was initially opposed to women on the force.
“Our primary objective was their safety,” he said. “It’s almost combat out there.”
But the officers had a different perception.
Rush was placed in the 25th District in North Philadelphia, responding to about 45 calls each shift, she said. Following her face-off in the drug store, “the police commissioner was upset I didn’t get killed, because he thought that would make the rest of us run away like little girls.”
There were other ways that women bore the burdens of foot patrol. While seasoned officers wore their leather jackets on duty to brace the winter weather, the rookies in 1976 had no coats.
“I caught myself crying and those tears just froze on my cheeks, it was so cold,” female officer Lee Gibson recalled in the “Lady Law” series.
After the Department of Justice sued Philadelphia for discrimination, the officers each earned a thin layer to wear over their uniforms. No hats, earmuffs or scarves allowed. No taking cover in phone booths or police cars either.
“It was a great way to become a cop,” Rush said. “If you’re going to survive in a situation where people are trying to make you fail, either say ‘I’m not doing this’ or find a way to make it work.”
Fortunately, Rush said, some people had compassion for that first class of female officers. Before long, residents in Rush’s district invited her into their homes for dinner, people passing her on the street offered her sweaters on cold nights and the local Fire Department offered her a seat at every holiday meal.
“Women shouldn’t take for granted that this opportunity to be a police officer was always there for them,” Rush said. “I am adamant that people should remember who paid it forward to get them there.”
Climbing the ladder
Rush’s 38-year journey from patrol officer to vice president for public safety has taken turns she didn’t expect. As she worked her way from one division to the next in the Philadelphia Police Department, she set her eyes on the commissioner’s office. Years later, her ambition would guide her to a new destination atop Penn’s public safety division, where she amassed an unprecedented amount of money and resources.
Rush’s jump up from patrol officer came under a new and more welcoming police commissioner who finally allowed women to pursue other responsibilities. That’s when Rush joined the Anti-Crime Team as a plainclothes officer to take down robbers and burglars.
“I used to say the only wardrobe I had back then were jeans and Reebok sneakers,” Rush said. Her partner — a veteran male officer — would drive the car up to suspected criminals and Rush would jump out and chase them down.
In 1985, Rush volunteered to be a decoy after a string of robberies, giving her the chance to live out her decoy dream. But it didn’t work out as she had imagined.
“I dressed up as a hooker, I dressed up as a doctor, I dressed up as a businesswoman. I was in alleys and always compromised. No one would rob me,” Rush said. “They could sense that I had been a cop for nine years. So I failed as a decoy, the original reason I wanted to be a cop.”
Rush only lasted in the position for a month, but the setback was minimal. She managed to climb the promotional ladder from officer to sergeant to lieutenant over her 18 years on the force. She jumped from the Patrol Division to the Anti-Crime Unit to the Traffic Division to the Narcotics Unit to the Training Bureau, taking down one criminal at a time.
As Rush looked ahead to her next promotion in 1994, she got word of an opening in Penn’s Division of Public Safety for a new director of Special Services — the department that provides victim support.
“I decided what the heck, I’ll see what happens,” Rush said. “It was a very political position. I did 13 interviews, one after another after another. Then by the 10th interview, I really wanted the job. It was a huge jump because before I wanted to go all the way up to police commissioner.”
Rush’s ambition has served her well since coming to Penn. During her 20 years at DPS, she rose in rank to chief of police before taking on her current position — one that Penn offered to her only after conducting a national search for the best candidate.
Despite spending her first year at DPS wishing she could return to the high life on the streets of Philadelphia, Rush later realized the advantages of working in a smaller, more focused division, one suitable for her life-long determination.
“Even if I was a captain or even if I was the police commissioner in Philadelphia, it would still be way harder to get anything done in Philly Police,” Rush said. “The Division of Public Safety is not as bureaucratic as the city government.”
Building an empire
The large screen projected a map of Penn’s campus, marked with red dots for each crime committed in the Penn Patrol Zone over the previous month. The wall to the right featured framed pictures of the University. The wall to the left displayed DPS’ mission statement in oversized letters.
The lieutenants and sergeants were gathered for DPS’ monthly meeting in one of the division’s biggest rooms at the 4040 Chestnut St. headquarters. Rush sat in the middle of the main table taking notes on her iPad, listening to supervisors discuss the monthly crime report. Robberies were down, but bike thefts were up. She interjected.
“You’re all doing a hell of a job,” Rush said. “I’ll take bicycle thefts over robberies any day.”
DPS functions as a miniature version of a citywide police force, instituting the same monthly meetings among police supervisors that can be found in police headquarters around the country.
The meetings serve to bring the main players throughout the division together to coordinate.
“What I love about my job is that it’s so diverse,” Rush said. “What’s on your calendar every morning — if you think for a second that’s what you’re doing today, you’ll be a fool.”
As the CEO of DPS, Rush manages Penn’s law enforcement, emergency preparedness and security technology. She handles a $22 million budget spent over eight departments totaling 176 employees and about 550 security contractors. Penn Police is equipped with a SWAT team equivalent and a K-9 Unit.
“Maureen has built an empire here,” Brennan said. “When I started out at the Division of Public Safety, we had 50 officers. Now we have 116. She built a human wall, made of human resources to protect the community.”
“Now we’re a little oasis in the middle of a crime-ridden city.”
Rush was a leading proponent of the expansion of DPS, spending her early years developing strategies to reduce high crime rates on campus.
In September 1996, the year Rush became chief of police, College senior Patrick Leroy was shot near 40th and Spruce streets in the crossfire of an armed robbery. On Halloween that same year, 38-year-old School of Medicine research associate Vladimir Sled was stabbed to death while protecting his wife from a purse snatch on the 4300 block of Larchwood Avenue.
At the time of Sled’s murder, Rush’s boss was away on business. Rush filled his shoes, meeting with former Executive Vice President John Fry the next day to scope out the locations for new AlliedBarton guards, the contract security officers who secure campus. Since then, the number of guards has risen to approximately 550.
Over the years, Rush has recruited many of her best colleagues from Philadelphia Police to Penn, including Brennan, who was a member of the elite Philadelphia homicide division.
Rush was a proponent of former President Judith Rodin’s West Philadelphia Initiatives to reduce campus crime, which included buying out retail and residential space near campus to create a buffer zone between Penn students and potentially dangerous West Philadelphia neighborhoods.
“We have alums come back and they can’t get over what’s transpired since they left,” Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli said. “[Rush] has just been a big part of the renaissance and the momentum of Penn over the last 20 years.”
Security Magazine has ranked Penn number one in the higher education sector on the “Security 500” list over the past six years. Rush travels the country lecturing on urban law enforcement and the interaction between college campuses and their surrounding communities.
Despite the notion that a larger police force could lead to more opportunity for abuse of authority, Rush brings in Penn faculty members to train her officers on how to engage with sensitive populations, including those of different genders, sexualities and religions.
Here, another aspect of Rush’s life informs her approach: She’s gay.
“If you were different, it wasn’t a good time in the ’70s,” Rush said. “You wouldn’t be putting rainbow colors up as you drove into the police district.”
“So when we talk about prejudice” — she paused — “I get it.” Rush pointed her thumbs at her chest. “I’ve been there as a double minority.”
Perhaps the biggest test of Rush’s diversity trainings came after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Students with Muslim backgrounds began to fear retaliation from law enforcement — but the fear was directed at Philadelphia Police, not Penn Police, said William Gipson, the associate provost for equity and access.
“I give Maureen Rush credit for creating the kind of atmosphere on campus where Muslim, Jewish and other students felt safe at a time when the whole country understandably was very frightened,” Gipson said. “Tough as nails, Philly woman, but with a heart of gold. That’s Maureen Rush.”
When a colleague in Penn’s Human Resources department died suddenly, Rush arranged the music for the funeral herself. One of her favorite free-time activities is playing drums and singing in her classic rock band — called House — led by Penn psychiatry professor Anthony Rostain, who chairs Penn’s mental health task force.
In addition to her signature ambition, colleagues and friends cite Rush’s empathy and concern for others as her most laudable personality traits.
“I’m never bored,” Rush said. “We have an opportunity every day to impact people’s lives. My personality would never be happy just sitting back and doing paperwork.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.