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Joseph W. Orbell, former Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector, dies at 87

One of the department's most respected leaders, he was on the local security details for eight visiting U.S. presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower through George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Orbell doted on his grandchildren. Here, he stands with grandson Jacob. They called him Poppy.
Mr. Orbell doted on his grandchildren. Here, he stands with grandson Jacob. They called him Poppy.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Joseph W. Orbell, 87, of Philadelphia, a former Chief Inspector for the Philadelphia Police Department, died Wednesday, Nov. 24, of cardiopulmonary arrest at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Meadowbrook.

Mr. Orbell was a 47-year veteran of the police department, and, using his innate people skills and lifelong work ethic, rose from motorcycle highway patrolman in 1956 to Chief Inspector, the highest civil service rank in the department, in 1984.

Tasked with training and managing thousands of officers over his career, Mr. Orbell, among other roles, was Staff Inspector for the Internal Affairs Bureau, and then Commander of the Command Inspections Bureau, Patrol Bureau, Special Investigations Bureau, Special Patrol Bureau, Community Affairs Bureau, and Police Training Bureau.

His nearly five decades on the force, and eight years as head of the Police Training Bureau, are among the longest tenures ever, and, at 51, he was one of the youngest officers to be named Chief Inspector. He retired in 2003 after having worked on local security details for every visiting U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush.

It was as Chief Inspector at the Police Training Center that Mr. Orbell found satisfaction as he was able to interact and influence both his own staff and the young officers new to the force.

In 1998, 93 recruits received their diplomas after 25 weeks of training, and Mr. Orbell, as reported in The Inquirer, told them: “Now when you hear somebody say, ‘Here come the cops,’ don’t look around. They mean you.”

“People said he was the best boss to work for because he cared about them,” said his son Joe. “He helped so many people get on the right career path. He liked to be part of training new officers, and then helping them get started in their careers.”

Mr. Orbell also taught criminal justice courses at the Community College of Philadelphia, and was a 1973 graduate of the FBI National Academy. He was invited to President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 White House Conference for a Drug Free America, and served on many other committees.

As part of the department’s Instruction and Certification Standards Committee, he helped create new standards and procedures for police training instructors.

In 1988, the police department was part of a task force of federal, state and city law enforcement officials that investigated violent drug dealers and drug-related murders. It was billed as one of the first of its kind in the nation, and Mr. Orbell was one of its spokespeople.

“I think it’s an excellent idea,” he told The Inquirer.

Born Dec. 16, 1933, in Philadelphia, Mr. Orbell was nine when his father died. He left Simon Gratz High School after his sophomore year to help support his mother, aunt, and three sisters, and worked for a time as a welder and truck driver before joining the police department.

One of his sisters introduced him to Laura Lapetina in 1958, and, impressed by his confidence and highway patrol uniform, she consented to a date. They were married for 61 years and had son Joe and daughter Laurie.

“He loved people,” his wife said. “He always looked for the good in people. He was a kind, gentle man, and a great father.”

Mr. Orbell liked to hunt and travel, and he met actor Harrison Ford when the 1985 film Witness was made in Philadelphia. His daughter called him Superman because “he was,” his wife said.

“He was a cop for sure,” his son said. “But I never saw him use that cop voice with anybody. He was the best father.”

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Mr. Orbell is survived by three grandchildren, and other relatives. Three sisters died earlier.

Services were Nov. 30.

Contributions in his name may be made to Officer Daniel Boyle Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 11511, Philadelphia, Pa., 19116, and the FOP Survivors Fund, 11630 Caroline Rd., Philadelphia, Pa. 19154-2110.