Triangle Talks with former Drexel Police Chief and VP of Public Safety Eileen Behr | The Triangle

Triangle Talks with former Drexel Police Chief and VP of Public Safety Eileen Behr

Courtesy of Drexel University

On June 30, Eileen Behr retired from her position as Vice President of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Drexel University. Behr has over 40 years of experience in law enforcement, having joined Drexel as Police Chief eight years ago. In recent years, Chief Behr, along with Drexel Police and Public Safety, have worked to reform public safety at Drexel, most recently following up with the recommendations made by the 21CP report. 

*This interview with Chief Behr has been edited for clarity.   

KR: I first wanted to start off by talking a little bit about your background and, specifically, can you tell me a little bit about your background before joining Drexel’s Public Safety and police department and how you got here? 

EB: So, I actually was a police officer in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, which is in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. We border Philadelphia. I was with Whitemarsh Township Police for 32 years, started as a dispatcher and retired from that department as the Chief of the Police Department. From Whitemarsh, I went to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff from Montgomery County had died suddenly, and I was appointed to fill the role and term of sheriff in Montgomery County, so I was there for five years. The opening for Chief of Police at Drexel came up, and I had a friend who was aware of the opening and I applied for the position. I thought it would be extremely rewarding and a really interesting challenge to work with young adults again on the college campus setting, so I applied for the job and our president, John Fry, hired me eight and a half years ago to fill the position of police chief at Drexel. 

KR: You mentioned this a little, but can you talk about what made Drexel stand out to you when you were first applying and [also] when you first began the job? 

EB: When I was at the sheriff’s department, it was more county wide and I had been with a smaller department. Part of my job with the smaller department at one time was [doing] a lot of work with juveniles, and of course, that’s under 18, but a lot of work with juveniles and young adults in my career as a police officer and I really found that very rewarding and very worthwhile. So, the opportunity to come to a college campus where there’s literally tens of thousands of young adults, I came hoping I could make a difference, help people, maybe work with young people to create awareness, safety, education, but just that was very rewarding to me. I find teenagers and young adults challenging but great to work with when you start communicating with them; you always learn from them. They always open your eyes to something new and different, so I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity. 

KR: When you were settling into your role, what were your goals? Did those goals change over time?

EB: I would say my goals when I first came was just the goal of learning the campus culture and the community culture because the Drexel Police Department controls not just the campus, but part of the surrounding neighborhoods, so it was going to be learning two slightly different cultures. The goal was: ‘How do we bring them together?’ And one of the things John Fry finds very important to him is community, the students working with the community, relationships with the community. For the students, how do we become good neighbors? Right away, that was a challenge to me, something that I had to understand. And as I was there, times have changed and things changed very rapidly over the last three to four years with the police, but it’s learning new ways of safety education, how to target a different group of young people that want to learn. 

My big challenge was, ‘How do I communicate with them to keep their interest?’ And working with, early on, editors from The Triangle and working with student government, I found out that I had a lot to learn, if I wanted to reach out and make young people aware of public safety, personal awareness, so those were some immediate challenges. What I did find was the students, when we reached out and asked for help, I found students very willing to engage with the police department and the public safety department. If there was a message, how do we get that message out? How do we get the message to the neighbors from the students about safety and neighborhood courtesy? Those were rather challenging, but I like a challenge, and again I found the students, the faculty, the staff, really willing to help and guide and give information.

KR: Since summer of 2020, there’s been a nationwide reckoning about policing and public safety and reimagining what that could look like. For Drexel, I know the 21CP Report has served as a review of Drexel’s police department and offers different areas for improvement towards enhancing things like transparency or improving training and community oversight. What was it like, having the responsibility of taking those recommendations and implementing them? 

EB: Trying, challenging at times. Trying to work through it, it was difficult for 21CP, too. They were doing a study and a survey of a public safety department during a time of COVID and they weren’t here. They never came to campus because of COVID and nobody was on campus, so a lot of it had to be done virtually, through virtual meetings, even with members of public safety and the survey team and Drexel had a steering committee working with the 21CP. Everything was being done virtually and it was also the onset of COVID when we were all really learning to communicate virtually. So that was a trying time. I’m trying to connect people—small groups, large groups, one-on-one I’m trying to get messages out. During that same time period, as 21CP was doing the report, there was reform going on for law enforcement and public safety, not just in Pennsylvania, but nationwide and within the city of Philadelphia.

We in public safety are trying to keep up with and follow trends and trying to correct misinformation, at times, trying to get good information, and also trying to rebuild a rapport with the community that wasn’t even physically there during those time periods. That was challenging. I will tell you that I felt the staff and public safety, the police officers, the dispatch, and the security officers worked very hard, because we were on campus. We were the only people on campus. We were trying to reach out even through video calls and our Community Relations team trying to work with student government, even during COVID times virtually to try to understand what the community wanted or needed, so we worked through it. 

With 21CP, when the report came out a lot of the recommendations they had, we had already done, because as soon as the George Floyd incident occurred, the tragedy there, as a police department, we started looking at our policies. Immediately, we started looking at our policies. What do our policies have? Are we already training our police officers to do this or should we not be training? A good example is the policy about choking. We had changed several years before after an incident in New York City where police officers had accidentally caused a death through a choking hold. So we had already done that, but it was re-looking at it again. So with 21CP, even though we had changes, that takes us back to pause, to look. With the university, there is now a Police Oversight Board that just started in the end of April, beginning of May, that everyone is working with to work with the police department and public. 

When you talk about public safety, it’s just not the police. We have a whole team of dispatchers that work 24/7, answering all the emergency calls. We have a team of 110 security officers. We have a technology support team. So everybody had to kind of stop and look inside our training, a retraining of police officers, new ways of training police officers. We are doing changes in the law, but also changes that we researched ourselves to make training better for officers. We started a year ago, training our officers in a very intense deescalation community intervention training. It’s five days of intense training with behavioral health experts on how to deal with the public, and particularly with people in distress or mental health, so I would say that as a department we took the report seriously, but I’m also happy to say that we already started making changes, reforms, and looking internally, while they were doing the study.              

KR: Something that I was wondering is aside from some of the recommendations you had already started working on, what were the biggest challenges in following up with and implementing those recommendations?

EB: We had a team, our security technology team started working with our database, our software company where we record every time police officers have an interaction. There’s a report, there’s an entry into a database of some type of report, so I have to credit our security technology team with reaching out to the software companies saying, ‘Hey, we need better ways and more efficient ways to record what the officers are doing to better respond and monitor what officers are doing with their community interactions.’ And that’s pretty much complete, but that was an intense project that was not easy. Also identifying good training, getting officers trained to train us and a lot of this was difficult because this was all conducted during COVID times when access to things was limited, but I would have to say I’m very proud of the whole public safety department that people embraced. We know if we want to be accepted into the community, if we want the community to trust us, that we are going to have to work hard on changes, above and beyond what we’re [doing]. 

KR: On a slightly different note, what were the most rewarding aspects of your job? 

EB: I have to tell you just working in that campus environment with the students, getting to meet a lot of students, getting to interact with students was really rewarding. The things that I learned a lot from students—I learned how to better communicate through students, watching students wanting to learn, working with staff and faculty to try to make the community better through students. It was rewarding. Interacting with students opened your eyes. We’ve got to work on different projects with the student government. We worked on a project about lighting up the neighborhood and supplying light bulbs to residents in cooperation with them. We created information cards and stickers to put into bathrooms about how to reach public safety when you’re in distress. We worked with the sociology and criminology department and actually developed an accredited course, which is a mini police academy that we put students through, including doing active threat training right along with the police officers in the car. They get to sit and dispatch, so those types of interactions were extremely rewarding and they were fun. It was just amazing to do all that and I know that everyone hears all the bad things, but there was a lot of really positive good interaction.    

KR: And what are the challenging aspects to that role at the same time? 

EB: Always with police, there’s always speculation and mistrust of police. There are bad police, I mean, I’ve been doing this for 45 years—I’ve just retired after 45 plus years in law enforcement—and there are bad officers. I can say that I have terminated bad officers who are not good. But the challenge over the past couple of years, where there was just continual negativity about the police, was distressing at times. Probably, and within the Drexel community, on a day-in and day-out basis, our officers do more public service calls than they do crime calls assisting the homeless, assisting students in distress. We do medical calls at Drexel. The police officers have first aid kits and AED defibrillators. They carry Narcan. They continually are out there, handling first aid, CPR. They give Narcan to people overdosing. They assist them when they need mental health. We work very closely with the counseling department on when a student is in distress, to get them help where they need or just getting to the counseling department. I guess the challenge of getting the positive that we do as a service organization is upsetting to me at times when it’s always just focused on some of the bad things. I cannot deny that there are bad things, but I think the overwhelming number of service calls and aid that we give to people is just dwarfed by one and two bad actions from the police. 

KR: Would you say that Drexel Police and Public Safety are doing things, or planning events, to sort of bridge this gap with students to raise awareness about the kind of work they do aside from policing? 

EB: I think we do. We always have, I believe. We had community relations officers. We asked them to get out in the community. They attend different events whenever they can. This past year Sergeant Santiago, a new member and head of the community relations team, started at least once a month doing ‘Cocoa with Cops’ or ‘Lemonade with Cops.’ They would just go out to a corner and invite people to come over and talk, just hands on. And we had a bike patrol reinstituted. The bike patrol is on the Chestnut Street and Market Street corners, where officers were out of their cars to actually be there to walk around and talk to people. Trying to bridge with people when there is a lot of constant negative attention in the media is the ongoing and constant challenge, but I would tell you I really do believe the officers and public safety are up for that challenge. Since I came to Drexel and before, it’s always been about trying to do community outreach and before George Floyd, we were really trying to reach out and do more… So, our officers are out there, more and more trying to get out of their cars and connecting [with] people. I think that it’s going to be slow, but I think it’s probably the right way to be visible and be out there, rather than on a screen. 

KR: Well to shift gears, how do you feel about leaving Drexel after eight years and what’s coming up next for you?

EB: I’m bittersweet. I have to tell you that the men and women of the public safety department—and they are just a very diverse crowd in every sense of the word—they are everything. They have been amazing to work with, and it’s bittersweet. The past few years through the challenges that police and public safety faced, they have been stellar. Through all of the negativity, we only had one person retire during all that. The dispatchers, the officers, the support staff, the technology people really came together, but we’re going to continue to serve and fight hard to figure out how we continue to serve and be positive for the community, so that’s hard to leave. I became very close to everyone, so I am going to miss them. For me, my life, my family and everything, it was probably a right opportunity. I actually am not totally retiring. I am taking a job in public safety and with a private company in the Philadelphia area where I hope I can still make contact in the community and support everyone at Drexel as long as I can. 

KR: Do you have a final farewell message for the Drexel community? 

EB: For the Drexel community, thank you for giving me the honor and pleasure to serve this community from the President and his cabinet, through all the students, through the staff, faculty, and particularly all my colleagues and peers in public safety and the neighbors in the neighborhood. We may have had our differences, but I will tell you I think we always came together and found a way to work through things and I am very, very thankful for the opportunity. I appreciate everything everyone did to support me while I was there.