Berkeleyan

Campus police chief to step down in July

After 19 years, Victoria Harrison bids farewell to 'a captivating place'

| 02 April 2009

Victoria HarrisonVictoria Harrison, who has seen many changes during her nearly two decades as the campus's top cop, is praised by superiors for "things that didn't happen."

When Victoria Harrison was named chief of police at UC Berkeley in 1990, she was 37 years old and the first woman in the country to command a university police department of such size and scope. If there were those who wondered if this young, female cop was up to the job, the answer would come all too quickly.

In her first three weeks on the job, Harrison was confronted with a run of tragic events. Late on Sept. 8 that year, a fire swept through the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity house, claiming the lives of three Cal students.

Then, as September was coming to a close, an armed and deranged man stormed Henry's, a popular south campus restaurant. He held more than 30 Berkeley students hostage, using some as human shields, terrorizing them throughout the early-morning hours. The UC and Berkeley police departments both responded. The seven-hour siege ended when a BPD SWAT team entered the restaurant and shot and killed the assailant though not before the man had fatally shot one student and wounded seven others.

Also in her early days on the job, a "very credible bomb threat" was phoned in with the campus as its target. Harrison and her department coordinated the first and still only complete evacuation of the campus. Fortunately, no bomb was found.

"I got tested early," says Harrison, recalling those first few weeks.

Problem-solving daily

At the end of July, Harrison will step down as chief, leaving Berkeley after a 36-year law-enforcement career that began in 1973, when she served as a community-service officer while she was majoring in sociology and anthropology at UC Santa Barbara.

Harrison joined the UC Police Department as a lieutenant in 1985 and was promoted to assistant chief in 1986. "Just after I interviewed for the job," she recalls, "I was here from Santa Barbara for a regents' meeting, and a report of a bombing at Cory Hall came in. It turned out to be the second time the Unabomber struck the campus. I knew then that every day when I come to work I'm going to have to bring my A-game. I was hooked. I never looked back."

In addition to serving as police chief, she is also an associate vice chancellor managing special projects, primarily in the areas of finance and facilities, reporting to Nathan Brostrom, vice chancellor for administration. Over the years her diverse campus portfolio has included managing parking and transportation, emergency preparedness, printing, mail services, and the ASUC Auxiliary.

"Chief Harrison represents the best of the Berkeley campus," says Brostrom. "In her nearly 20 years of service as police chief she has always celebrated the mission of the university and the unique role of the police in supporting this mission. Her record as chief has been exemplary, as measured both by statistics and by things that did not happen because of sound community policing.

"Finally, she loves this place and embodies the Cal spirit in all she does. If I ever dare wear a red tie, the chief is the quickest, and loudest, to call me on it."

Pensions and payouts

A national search is under way to find a successor to Harrison, who will leave the campus no later than July 31, when her current contract expires.

She has been working as AVC and chief on a contract since she formally retired from UC in 2007. At the time, university human-
resources officials gave Harrison incorrect information that led her to believe that the only way she could return to full-time employment was to forgo the lifetime monthly annuity she had earned and, instead, take a lump-sum payout of her pension benefit, a decision she reluctantly accepted.

In January of this year, at UC President Mark Yudof's request, a new policy limiting re-employment at UC following retirement was established. In an agreement reached with UC, Harrison will restore to the UC Retirement Plan the full amount of the lump-sum payout she received in 2007 and will begin to receive a monthly annuity upon the expiration of her current contract.

Those calls in the night

Many changes have occurred during Harrison's time as chief, brought on by a changing world. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 "changed the way we look at every public gathering, every event. It turned the hypothetical into reality." The speed of information, meanwhile, "gives you no time to think. Everything is live over the Internet. It's made a huge change in our training and in how we prepare for a situation," she says.

Not surprisingly, Harrison can easily name a career's worth of protests that she and her officers and command staff have faced, including a prolonged anti-apartheid encampment, actions by the Third World Liberation Front to press for more ethnic-studies resources, animal-rights protests and violence, the ups and downs of People's Park, a University House break-in and foiled assassination attempt on Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, and the nearly two-year-long tree occupation at Memorial Stadium.

But the hardest times, she says, are the calls in the middle of the night when "more often than not it is something tragic or devastating that has happened to a student. Those are more personal at least, they certainly are for me. I can only imagine how a parent reacts to that."

To this day, the case that saddens her most deeply is the 1992 stabbing murder of a student, Grace Asuncion, working late in student offices in Eshleman Hall. A suspect was never identified. "We will always feel a sense that we left something undone. We never closed that case. It would not have brought Grace back to life, but I think it would have helped her family, helped bring closure."

Harrison has earned her share of awards and distinctions over the years. She was named by KGO radio as one of its "Women of the '90s," an honor she shared with now-U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The honor she is particularly proud of is the Cal spirit award she received from the student Rally Committee. An unapologetic fan of Cal sports, campus life, and Blue and Gold in general, Harrison is rarely without a Golden Bear pin on her lapel.

"Cal is a captivating place," she enthuses. "I loved it here from the moment I walked in the door."