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Campus police chief will step down in July

Over 19 years as chief, Victoria Harrison has brought her 'A-game' to see UC Berkeley through wide-ranging adversity

| 26 March 2009

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.

UCPD Chief Victoria HarrisonUCPD Chief Victoria Harrison (Peg Skorpinski photo)
In the first three weeks on the job, Harrison was confronted with a run of tragedy. The string of events began late on Sept. 8 when a fire swept through the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity house claiming the lives of three Cal students.

As September was coming to a close, trouble returned with a surreal twist when an armed and deranged man stormed a popular south campus bar. He held more than 30 Berkeley students hostage, using some as human shields, and 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 bar and shot and killed the assailant, but, tragically, not before the man had fatally shot one student and wounded seven others.

Finally, the new chief's decision-making mettle got yet another workout in her early days on the job. When 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," said Harrison, recalling those first few weeks. At the end of July, she will step down as chief, leaving UC Berkeley after a 36-year law-enforcement career that began in 1973, when she served as a community service officer while she was a student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in sociology and anthropology.

"The best parts of my career have always been the people that I work with, and going into work every day knowing that what you are doing as a police officer is problem solving," she said. "It is amazing to know that at the end of each day you will look back and say, 'Wow.' Even now that's true."

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, 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," Harrison recalled.

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 UC Berkeley 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." said 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, both as measured 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," he added.

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, Harrison received information from university human-resources officials that unintentionally led her to believe that the only way she could return to full-time employment was to forego the life-time 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 reemployment 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.

For the campus's chief and its police officers, the troubles and challenges are never-ending, but Harrison sees UCPD as different from a typical police department.

"After all these years, I hope that the kind of person who works for the police department shares my values and my philosophy: that we are part of the university community, and that we are dedicated to public service. Being a police officer ought to be about wanting to make a difference," she said.

Today, there are 130 UCPD employees, including 77 sworn officers. Among the officers, 26 percent are women, 44 percent are white, 20 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent Native American. About one in three is a University of California graduate, including 22 percent who are Berkeley alumni.

"Ours is an outstanding police department because of the people who work there," said Harrison.

Many changes have occurred during her 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."

"And, the speed of information. It 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 said.

Not surprising, 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 and the nearly two-year-long tree occupation at Memorial Stadium.

Perhaps the most disturbing crime, however, was the August 1992 break-in and foiled assassination attempt on Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien in his campus home. Campus police were tipped off to the intrusion by an alarm at University House and encountered the machete-wielding suspect a troubled, long-time People's Park activist in a bathroom in the house.

But the hardest times, she said, 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," she said.

To this day, the case that saddens her 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 if 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. "Tradition means a lot to me. It really does," she says.

"Cal is a captivating place. I loved it here from the moment I walked in the door," said Harrison. And even that first day foreshadowed her Berkeley career of handling adversity: as she walked up to police headquarters in Sproul Hall, the building was being evacuated. A fire had broken out in the elevator shaft, and she started her new job a few hours later than planned.