Timothy Bernhardt never saw himself working as a police officer, but a life-threatening illness has a way of changing one’s perspective.
While battling cancer he developed working as a power plant technician in Limerick, Bernhardt accompanied a childhood friend who was a police officer in Upper Darby on a ride-along through their old neighborhood. Something clicked, and Bernhardt decided to make a career change.
More than two decades later, Bernhardt, 49, has just taken over as the top cop in Upper Darby, where he was sworn in as superintendent on Sept. 22 after 21 months filling in on an interim basis following the departure of longtime superintendent Michael Chitwood. Amid the gratitude he feels for being given a chance to lead, the native son has made clear that, under his administration, the department will take a different, more community-driven approach in line with modern goals of policing.
“It’s about building a trust in the community with the police,” Bernhardt said in an interview. “The days of just going out there, shaking a tree, and letting courts figure it out are over. That’s not policing, and that’s not how we move forward.”
Bernhardt took over from the gregarious, media-savvy Chitwood in November 2019, when the veteran leader retired just days after the municipal election. That election saw the victory of the township’s first female and Democratic mayor, Barbarann Keffer, who Bernhardt assumed would install her own superintendent once she got settled.
But after working side by side with him during COVID-19 and the rolling protests over the death of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of Philadelphia police — and the resulting damage to much of Upper Darby’s business district — Keffer said she found a kindred spirit in Bernhardt.
“I think our whole philosophy is that we want a lot more interaction between the department and our community,” Keffer said. “And Tim has made it his priority to work with our stakeholders.”
Bernhardt has already taken major steps toward change. He ordered Tasers for all police officers so they’d have a ready alternative to using deadly force. Body-worn cameras will be rolled out in the coming months, and deescalation and racial-sensitivity training are now included in the usual instruction for officers.
He’s also hired a victim advocate to assist people affected by crime. He’s pursuing federal accreditation for the department, and he’s begun laying the foundation, with the township school district, for the resurrection of the department’s police athletic league.
At his direction, the township also got rid of what Keffer called “the tank,” a military tactical vehicle that she said evoked the feeling of a war zone whenever it was deployed around the area.
“We want people to feel we’re approachable and that we understand the community we’re working in,” the mayor said. “The people, the housing, the parks, our restaurants, everything is here, and we want everyone to recognize that and enjoy it.”
Bernhardt acknowledged that his vision of policing is somewhat different from Chitwood’s, a brash former Philadelphia police officer. The department’s new leader sees himself as adapting to changing national attitudes toward the police. At the same time, Bernhardt said, he values the lessons he learned from Chitwood, especially about the importance of interacting with people in, and being present around, the community he’s serving.
Still, amid a national racial reckoning and calls for greater accountability for law enforcement, he said the department needed to evolve.
“We can’t deny that policing has changed, and with the recent events the country has faced, the days of hiring an officer and sending him out there to make an arrest aren’t there anymore,” Bernhardt said. “We have to be well-trained and knowledgeable.”
Part of that new approach includes changing the very fabric of the department. In the spring, Bernhardt welcomed 22 new recruits in the most diverse class in department history, including the township’s first officer of South Asian descent.
For a township whose residents speak 50 different languages, that was a point of pride for both Bernhardt and Keffer.
“My hope is that we continue to build on this,” Bernhardt said. “And if we’re doing something you don’t agree with, let us know. We’re only going to be as good as our community. That’s how we grow together.”