Police Chief Discusses Work, Family

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MIT Police Chief John DiFava spoke with The Tech about how he became part of the MIT community and his plans for the future.
Eric D. Schmiedl—The Tech

This is the fifth interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews MIT Police Chief John DiFava, who talks about his background with the Massachusetts State Police and security at MIT.

The Tech: What is your role at MIT?

John DiFava: I was hired as the chief of police. My role has been expanded, so now I have responsibilities as the director of security and campus police services.

I oversee the police department and I also oversee the security initiatives within the Institute that basically are in its very early stages. … We opened [the Security & Emergency Management Office], so I have a three person office working with me that deals with issues of security on campus.

I’m also what they call a facility security officer. What that is — the Defense Security Service oversees any entity that has dealings with the federal government for sensitive issues. And although we don’t do any kind of top secret work on campus, nor do we have any secret or classified documents on campus, I still have to maintain a list of key personnel that are eligible to be able to go up to Lincoln Labs, so I maintain their security clearances and things like that.

TT: How did you become involved with MIT?

JD: Well, I was with the Massachusetts State Police for 28 years and was the colonel my last three years — that is the guy that runs the State Police — and I had my time in. Twenty-five years is the time you put in for the State Police, so I was three years past that. …

I have a young family, my children are only seven and eight and I’m 55, so back five years ago they were a lot younger, and that job — being the biggest police department in New England, the fifth biggest state police agency in the country — was taking an awful lot of time. …

So I started looking around for another career because I wasn’t ready to retire. I was ready to stay within the law enforcement game, but maybe throttle it back a little bit because I have a fatal flaw — that flaw is I like to work and if you hire me, I’m going to give you 10 hours of work for eight hours of pay. That’s the way I was brought up. I’m from a Depression-era immigrant family, and that was the way I was brought up, so that’s all I know.

… When I was on the State Police Department, my last 10 years of my career, I was also teaching college at night and on weekends for Western New England college. I was doing management, criminal justice programs, so when I saw the advertisement for the chief of police for MIT, it got my curiosity in three ways. One was: I said, Boy, going from a 3,000-person department running to a department of roughly 62, it can’t take the same amount of time, it just physically can’t. Not that I’m looking for a slide, but it just couldn’t. Number two, it keeps me in the law enforcement game, which is all I know. And number three, it’s higher ed, which I had experience with from teaching and I enjoy it. So, I applied, I went through the process, and I was fortunate enough to get the job.

TT: What services do the MIT Police offer?

JD: Well, we have the services that a traditional police department offers. We have the regular visible patrol, we have a detective unit that will follow up on crimes that occur on campus, and we patrol in the traditional manner with police cruises, with motorcycles, and on foot, but then we go an extra step where we have the bicycles. I’m looking at a Segway [Personal Transporter] right now as well to try to blend in that technology of MIT with the police department and to further engage the community. I think the conversation between a student and an officer on a Segway is healthy.

Then we offer things beyond that. We do RAD, the Rape Aggression Defense program. I am hugely involved in community policing so we have a group that just does community as far as Stata and residential housing and the [fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups] and all that. We try to engage the community as much as possible.

It’s traditional policing in the higher ed venue if you will … our stats are a little different than a regular police department in the sense that we are much more service-oriented. For example, if somebody gets locked out of their office, we’ll get them back into their office. We have master keys for all the doors on campus. We’ll provide escort service to the garages and the parking lots after hours. Students that are ill and need a ride to the infirmary or back, we provide that type of service. So we do a lot that’s non-traditional.

… There’s a lot of very specialized work here that’s not even found, say, in the Cambridge or State Police in the sense of dignitary movements. We have a lot of dignitaries that come in and out of MIT during the school year on a regular basis, so we will work with the secret service or the State Department depending on the level of security that individual may have, and make sure that their trip to MIT and their visit here is safe, peaceful, well-escorted, ….

Fortunately, crime is in the minority. If I was to average my call volume, it would be 3 percent criminal work, and the other 97 percent service-oriented type of deliveries.

TT: Are there any projects the MIT Police is working on to ensure greater safety?

JD: Yes. I am a big believer in sharing of resources and working cooperatively with other entities. I think that one of the big deficiencies of policing has been, well actually, two things, the disengagement from the community and the tendency to work in a vacuum. I don’t embrace that at all. I’ve always been a believer that we serve a community and the community should be able to tell us what they want. We should, as police, not tell them what they’re going to get. So if I have a community, they should have input to the way I operate the department, and although I will make the ultimate decision, I believe their input should drive my ultimate decision. …

I need to share resources, information, and cooperate with Housing, with Facilities, with Medical, with the deans’ offices. We have a task force right now that we’re going to develop. A task force is probably a bad word, we don’t even know exactly what we’re going to call it, but we’re going to try to make a homogeneous approach or holistic approach where we will utilize, on any given problem, not just the resources within the police department, but all of the resources that we feel can contribute to that specific problem.

For example, the only real criminal issue we have on this campus, and I say thank god, is theft. We don’t have the assaults, we don’t have that type of thing that goes on in a lot of schools, but everything is relative. [When something is stolen] you’re devastated and it doesn’t matter what’s going on anywhere else, so I’m taking this theft issue extremely seriously.

In order to give the best approach, the task force concept will interact the patrol division with the detectives. The initial call will be the detectives and the patrol, not just the patrol, and then we will look at the area by using crime mapping, which we haven’t really utilized before. I really feel that now is the time to utilize technology.

TT: Any plans for the future?

JD: The security office just got up and running on July 1. I’ve got big hopes for that as far as dealing with issues of access control, giving the community one-stop shopping for issues on security because policing and security are separate and distinct. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are separate and distinct because policing is the uniformed person, the suppression of crime, the investigation of crime. Security is not necessarily personnel intensive … it’s definitely preventative, it’s not proactive like policing. …

My long term goal is to provide a level of security to this campus that is as good as MIT is in the academic world, but yet nobody even really knows it’s here. In other words, I don’t want to impede your ability to study, your ability to do research, your freedom to move. I feel like I can do that. Some of my colleagues in other colleges think that I’m nuts, but I think I can do that.

TT: What advice do you have for incoming freshmen?

JD: Use common sense. I’ve taken a real liking for MIT. I’ve taken a real liking and a tremendous amount of respect for the people, students, what they do. I benchmark the things I have to deal with with other schools, and I know all the chiefs in the other schools. My job is so much easier than them in so many ways because we just don’t have a lot of the same problems. But the other side is, I think that people come here and they get so captivated in MIT that they forget that you should better lock your door, don’t just leave your backpack on a bench and walk to La Verde’s for a Coke. Use common sense. …

We’ll do our best to provide a safe environment, but there’s only so much I can do with 42 patrol officers. They have to help us help them, and I think that’s the best advice I can give.

TT: What were your first impressions of MIT? Have they changed?

JD: It’s funny, my father was from Italy and he settled in east Cambridge when he came from Italy before World War II, and my mother settled in Hyde Park and I grew up in Hyde Park. So on Sundays, we’d always go to my father’s family in east Cambridge, and we’d always go by MIT. My father would always go, “That’s MIT, that’s MIT,” ’cause he never had an education and he was hoping that I would. So he was trying to at a young age to drive this education thing in me, and you know, through the years, you build up this incredible impression of what MIT is. And when I first got here, instead of that being disappointing, I was even more impressed because everybody you deal with here is a pro.

Everybody you deal with here is focused, intelligent and smart. Maybe they’re lacking experience and knowledge in other areas, but if you take the time to explain, they understand. What I mean is, like with law enforcement, not a lot of people here understand criminal justice and not a lot of the people here understand policing, but you take the time to explain and that’s it, it’s over. They understand and you can work with them. I’m incredibly impressed, and if anything in the last five-and-a-half years, my impression has improved.

When I was running the State Police, I had 3,000 people, my budget was $270 million a year, and I was broke all the time and I never had enough people to get the job done. Over here, I’m not going to say I’m over-staffed and I’m not going to say that I’m over-funded, but I have enough people to do what I need to do, and if I’m careful, I have enough money to get the job done. Not a lot of people in my field can say that, and that’s because of the administration. I think they take a very, very serious look at providing safety and security to the students. If you ask me my only disappointment: I don’t get to interact with the students as much as I thought, but that’s because of my role.

TT: How do you enjoy spending your spare time?

JD: My spare time — what little spare time I have — [I spend] with my children. My daughter is seven and my son is eight, and I spend as much time with my kids as I can. I am really good with my hands. I like to work with my hands — carpentry and all that — and my son is right there with me all the time, and I think I’m making a tomboy out of my daughter, but that’s okay because she enjoys it too.