The 17 new officers sat in uniform in the University of Pennsylvania auditorium this month, many having been cops in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

But now, they would be working for a university where their workday could one moment include helping a student experiencing a mental health crisis and, the next, confronting a criminal.

“We want you every day to go out and make emotional deposits in the bank,” Maureen S. Rush, vice president of public safety, told them, emphasizing the need to build trust and relationships in the community.

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For Rush, who has led Penn’s 121-officer police force for more than a quarter century, this would be the last group of recruits to hear her wisdom. She will retire Dec. 31.

“If you screw up, it’s my fault,” quipped Rush, 68. “So, no screwing up.”

It’s the culmination of an extraordinary career for the Philadelphia native who in 1976 made history as one of the first 100 female police officers in the city. After almost two decades, she was on a short list to become a captain before she took the job at Penn, where she was integral in transforming its West Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1990s following some violent crime.

Since she began as chief, the department has more than doubled, and crime in its 2.5-square-mile patrol zone has plummeted 63%, said Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s senior executive vice president.

“Her impact has been tremendous,” Carnaroli said. “Her motto is ‘It’s all about relationships’ and she lives it and breathes it every day.”

The last couple of years have been difficult as she watched the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and experienced backlash against her own department as part of a nationwide reckoning. Now, with recruitment of officers at a critical low nationwide and many leaving the profession, she wants to help restore confidence and appreciation for the job.

“It has to get turned around, and it has to get turned around by thought leaders working with community groups,” she said. “That is something I really want to be involved in.”

Rush’s departure coincides with other leadership changes at Penn. President Amy Gutmann will step down in June and awaits confirmation as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Provost Wendell Pritchett, who has been on leave, will return as a special adviser to Gutmann and then join the law school faculty.

One of Philly’s first female police officers

Born in the Swampoodle section of North Philadelphia, Rush attended Catholic schools and later worked at a Center City bank, where she got to know police officers. She became interested in the force after noticing a woman working as a “rape decoy” — her job was to lure assailants when the city was experiencing a rash of sexual assaults.

At the time, women on the force weren’t permitted to patrol or be detectives. But a lawsuit backed by the U.S. Justice Department paved the way for women to become full-fledged officers. Still, even after Rush was hired in 1976, women got the worst assignments, walking lone outdoor foot patrols in the most dangerous neighborhoods with no place to go to the bathroom or get warm.

“It was very hard,” she said. “We were very unwanted. Men were told at roll calls before our arrival: ‘These women are taking men’s jobs. Don’t help them. Let a couple of them get killed. They’ll cry like little girls and they will run.’”

Five weeks into the job, Rush, then 22, had her most dangerous encounter as a cop. She was working alone on a night shift before Christmas. A Rite Aid was being robbed, and she encountered the culprit.

“He puts his gun in my face,” she said. “I put my gun in his face. He cocks it. I cock it.”

“If you kill me,” she said she told him, “I’ll be the first woman cop killed and 8,000 cops are going to hunt you down.”

He gave her his gun. That night, a bunch of male officers took her out for drinks.

Lured by Penn

She remained a city police officer for 18 years, rising to lieutenant, and dreamed of becoming commissioner. Then a job opened in the Penn police department working with victim support. Thirteen interviews later, wanting the job more each time, she was hired. In 1996, she was promoted to chief.

West Philadelphia around Penn at that time was experiencing a violent crime wave. A Penn senior had been shot in an attempted robbery. Then a medical school research associate was stabbed to death trying to protect his fiancee from a purse snatcher. It was the night before a Penn trustees meeting, Rush recalled, and she was invited to come to a breakfast the next morning.

“At that breakfast, they decided they had to change the environment or people would not want to go to school here or work here or do research here,” she said.

Rush worked on the safety aspects of improving Penn’s neighborhood, a transformation that included bringing in a movie theater and grocer, opening a public school and launching the University City District, fostering relationships among colleges, retailers, and residents. The effort was led by John A. Fry, then a Penn executive and now president of Drexel.

Fry later made Rush a vice president.

“The single best personnel decision I made while I was at the University of Pennsylvania was promoting Maureen,” he said. “I knew her sense of mission and commitment around public safety and doing so in a progressive way was something that would be a long-term commitment.”

Penn’s police force gradually grew into what it is today. Beyond the 121 officers, Penn contracts with a security firm for about 600 guards who patrol on and around the campus. There are 140 cameras monitoring streets and thousands more inside buildings.

Rush interviews every officer candidate herself, looking for those with “high emotional intelligence who want to serve people,” she said.

Television producer Meredith Stiehm, a 1990 Penn grad, was so inspired by Rush that she named a detective after her — Lilly Rush — in her show Cold Case.

“I thought her grit was amazing,” Stiehm told the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper, in 2014.

Tough times

But not all reaction to the department has been good. Students held demonstrations outside headquarters after Floyd’s death, questioned police officers’ role in quelling protests, and called for Rush’s firing.

Rush said she was horrified at Floyd’s killing but thought it was wrong to vilify her officers and many others who do what she considers the most “impossible” and dangerous job in America.

“Our officers stood outside when we were marched on and heard awful things directed at them, which were unfair, untrue,” she said.

Lumping good officers in with bad is tantamount to prejudice, she said. And as a gay woman — or twice a minority, as she says — she takes that personally.

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The unrest at times put her at odds with one of her closest allies, the Rev. Charles L “Chaz” Howard, Penn’s chaplain, who co-led a task force reviewing Penn police practices in the wake of criticism after Floyd’s death.

But at the new officer ceremony, Howard made clear his feelings for Rush, whom he said he had called that week at midnight to help mediate a crisis.

“We have loved,” he told her. “We have fought. We have been through a lot, but we always land on love.”

» READ MORE: Local universities start changing police practices following George Floyd's killing

Most Penn students live within the department’s patrol zone, and bicycle theft and retail theft are the most common crimes they face, she said. Penn so far hasn’t been as affected by the wave of gun violence as Temple University, where a student was killed just off campus during a November robbery.

Rush said she looks forward to spending more time with her wife, Jacqueline Hudak, a therapist, and daughter, Amanda, 26. She would like to finish writing a book about her life and intends to continue singing and playing drums in her rock band, House.

Penn named Kathleen Shields Anderson, executive director of operations and chief of staff as interim, while it searches for Rush’s replacement.

The department is also planting a chestnut oak with a plaque in Rush’s honor at Penn Park.

“Chestnut oaks are so strong and so tough that they’ve been known to break rocks,” Anderson told her at the ceremony. “You’ve been known to break ceilings, glass ceilings in particular.”