On Patrol with Lower Merion Police
It can be tough to do their jobs in light of recent national events.
All photos by Tessa Marie Images
Lower Merion looks different from the back of a police car. Shrubs obscuring Gladwyne homes make great cover for burglars. Dimly lit Haverford Square shops seem ripe for smash-and-grabs. Two cars are parked, engines running, in the Ludington Library lot hours after closing. A young man in dark clothing darts around suspiciously on Cricket Avenue, while a car with its headlights off cruises down Lancaster Avenue.
None of that seems suspicious to Sgt. Jo Anne Pepitone. A Lower Merion police officer since 2000, she knows when something is slightly off—but not an emergency. She also knows when to intervene.
Lower Merion Police Sgt. Jo Anne Pepitone.
She knows that drivers often need a few minutes to turn on their headlights. She’s well aware that the cars in Ludington’s lot belong to workers from a cleaning company. And Haverford Square’s shops aren’t a concern, but the AT&T store in Bryn Mawr is. It was robbed three times in recent weeks.
Lower Merion residents aren’t shy about dialing 911. A supposed altercation in downtown Ardmore, however, turns out to be a dead-end. A father who was seen beating his kids in a parking lot was simply trying to coax his teenage daughters—both with mood disorders—into the car to get dinner. No one is there when Pepitone arrives.
The aforementioned guy in dark clothing running between houses happens to be a UPS carrier. And then there are Uber drivers, who’ve become a popular target for 911 callers. They often circle Lower Merion’s back roads looking for their customers.
“It’s never a waste of our time,” says Pepitone. “Let us come and check it out. I’m glad that people call us when they see something.”
But civilians see the world differently than cops.
Cops Are Racist. End Police Brutality.
These and other messages occupied placards held by those marching down Lancaster Avenue this past Nov. 16. Post-election emotions were running high, with protests taking place in several cities. This march ended at the Lower Merion police department’s headquarters, where the group of about 50 students, mostly from Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, shouted slogans.
Bryn Mawr junior Megan Murray had organized the march. “I was inspired by the activism I’ve seen on campus by my peers and by the work of groups like Black Lives Matter, which has been integral to my consciousness of issues like police brutality and profiling,” she says in an email sent from Europe, where she’s studying this semester.
Murray was outraged that the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Trump. “My belief is that, if the LMPD truly cares about all citizens, it will withdraw its membership from the FOP and denounce all of Trump’s hateful rhetoric,” Murray writes. “I hope that LMPD officers came away from our demonstration understanding that their tacit endorsement of Trump sends the message that they aren’t here to protect all citizens, but only those who have historically been protected by law enforcement—straight white men.”
Things have been even less friendly in Coatesville. In July 2016, right after the ambush that killed five Dallas police officers and wounded nine others, a pedestrian threw a rock at a Coatesville police car, shattering its windshield. The assailant attacked the officer when he got out of the car. Backup arrived quickly, but one of those officers suffered a broken sternum and was out of work for four months.
Social media was soon buzzing that police shot the assailant. Chief of Police John Laufer released footage from the car’s dashboard camera to show the entire episode and calm tensions.
Until recently, Coatesville’s police cars didn’t have dash cams. “Ferguson kicked off a national narrative about dash cams, and I thought they were important tools for us to have,” Laufer says.
In Ferguson, Mo., after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in August 2014, Black Lives Matter and other groups organized demonstrations that often became violent. The officer was later exonerated of all charges.
In the meantime, body cameras became a hot topic. They’re seen as another tool for recording interactions between civilians and police. Laufer recently outfitted his patrol officers with body cameras that are mounted on their chests, clearly visible. They’re not cheap, but Laufer says they demonstrate his department’s commitment to transparency. “The public [now] knows that, when a uniformed officer gets there, everything is on camera,” he says. “That protects the officer and the citizen.”
Neither the Lower Merion nor Tredyffrin police departments have equipped officers with body cameras. But comparing those townships to Coatesville is, to say the least, an apples-and-oranges situation. The geography is more urban in the latter, and the citizenry is different. Coatesville’s 1.9 square miles are home to about 13,164 people, many of them living in poverty. The estimated income per capita was just $17,702 in 2013.
One bright spot in Coatesville is the new Gordon Early Literacy Center, a Head Start-type program for 3- to 5-year-olds. Sgt. Rodger Ollis visited the school just before Christmas. Throughout the year, he organizes events where Coatesville officers interact with residents—especially kids. “We’ve been doing it for decades,” Ollis says. “Community policing is a catch-phrase in the news now, but it’s one of the founding premises of [our] work.”
While at Gordon, Ollis handed out “tickets” for good behavior. The flyers entitled each child to a free toy if they visited police headquarters. He got high-fives from many students, who were excited to see a police officer in uniform. Officers will help them in all kinds of situations, he insisted, adding that kids shouldn’t hesitate to say hello. Many said they would, crowding around him to touch his badge, his hat and the patches on his arms.
But some preschoolers hung back, looking suspiciously at Ollis. When he asked them what they’d do if they saw a police officer, one child said, “Run.”
What happens in Coatesville, Ferguson, Chicago and other cities where police have been accused of misconduct has a ripple effect. Following allegations of racial bias, Lower Merion’s board of commissioners hired Major Ben’s Consulting Agency to suggest improvements to the police department’s best practices and community-outreach programs. “There’s a national trend of mistrust in police, and we may get blamed for something an officer did in another part of the country,” says Lower Merion Capt. Eugene Pasternak. “People aren’t physically resistant, but I’ve seen a rise in people being more willing to resist verbally.”
Pepitone and Officer Brendan O’Connor answer a call in downtown Ardmore.
Perhaps that’s because recent events seem to validate centuries of deeply held beliefs that police engage in racial profiling. Indeed, there’s the long-standing charge that drivers are pulled over for DWB—“driving while black”—on the Main Line. “People who live here know that this is a diverse community,” says Pasternak. “We pull over all kinds of people. You get pulled over because of behavior that’s suspicious or illegal.”
Driving under the influence is the most suspicious behavior on the Main Line. Tredyffrin Officer Joseph Butler described his department’s procedure for stopping motorists: “It’s a business transaction, during which we are polite and respectful. We tell you why we pulled you over; we expect people to cooperate and listen to our commands. The smell of alcohol or marijuana is probable cause to investigate further.”
And if there’s a gun in the car? That was the case with 32-year-old Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by police outside St. Paul, Minn., in July 2016. Castile was reaching for his wallet after he told an officer that he had a gun and a license to carry. Butler pulls over many drivers in that same situation. “Most people calmly tell us that they have the gun on them,” he says. “We ask them to surrender it safely, then give us their ID. Slow and steady—no surprises.”
Trouble is, you never know how a driver will respond. Because it’s the primary enforcement agency for parts of Routes 202 and 422, Tredyffrin’s police department responds to more than 25,000 traffic calls per year. Any one of those incidents could devolve into a confrontation. “That’s not our training,” says Detective Sgt. Todd Bereda. “Once you go hard, it’s hard to go back—so we treat people like the citizens they are. It keeps them safe. People don’t look at us as the enemy; they look at us as part of the solution.”
That positive view of police on the Main Line is demonstrated by the hundreds of lawn signs declaring support for various local departments. The lobby of the Tredyffrin PD has a Blue Lives Matter wreath from residents, and Coatesville police have received candy-filled care packages and cards from residents. “We’re all tough cops,” Ollis says. “But things like that really touch our hearts.”
Sgt. Jo Anne Pepitone may oversee a platoon of 20 officers, but she handles many situations on her own. All cops do. Late last year, she responded to a call about an electrical smell inside a home. I watched in awe as she walked alone into an unlit house that could’ve contained any number of dangers. Granted, she has a gun, a Taser and other weapons. But she could’ve easily been ambushed in the darkness.
Pepitone and Officer Brendan O’Connor were certainly outnumbered when they responded to a call at Ardmore Music Hall. It was a medical situation requiring transport by Narberth Ambulance, and it took place without incident. But in a crowd of young adults who’d been drinking, anything was possible. “[But] this isn’t that kind of situation,” O’Connor said that night. “It won’t get out of hand.”
How did he know that? “We’re cops,” added Pepitone. “We look at things differently.”