Michael J. McGrath began his career with the Lower Merion Township Police Department 33 years ago and worked his way up the ranks from a patrol officer in 1979 to Superintendent in 2009. Prior to becoming Superintendent, he served as Captain of Staff Services and Captain of the Operations Division.
Attending college to study business, Superintendent McGrath decided to change his direction. He had an interest in law and wanted a more varied career that would not put him at a desk from 9-5 and every day would not be the same. He transferred to West Chester University and earned a B.S. degree in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Business Administration – the perfect combination to help prepare him for his current position as Superintendent of one of the largest police departments in Pennsylvania. He has also completed bachelor level and graduate courses at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.
In his role as Superintendent, McGrath is responsible for the overall direction of the police department. He reports to 14 elected officials, as well as the Township Manager. He oversees all the divisions within the police department, including the Traffic Safety Unit, the Investigations Unit, the Special Operations Unit, and the Staff Division. He is also the designated Emergency Management Coordinator for the township.
Throughout his career he has received multiple honors. Some include the Outstanding Senior Manager of the Year Award in 2009 and the Outstanding Middle Manager of the Year Award in 1996, both from the Township of Lower Merion; as well as three departmental commendations.
Metro Technology talked with Superintendent McGrath about running a department that serves more than 60,000 residents and a large business district that borders Philadelphia.
Metro Alert: What are some of the key challenges of running a police department that is near such a large urban center?
Superintendent McGrath: Since we border Philadelphia, many of our “customers” are from the city. This impacts the types and volume of crime. There are more people living and working in the area, creating more traffic and more work for the department. Our business district on our border is unique because it is split with the Philadelphia Police Department covering one half and our department responsible for the other side of City Avenue. There are many large businesses, TV stations and shopping centers in that area. We have a very good relationship with the Philadelphia Police, which is important to serve this busy community.
Metro Alert: What are the most common types of crime in Lower Merion and how do they differ from a suburban community farther away from the city?
Superintendent McGrath: Thefts and burglaries are our highest categories. This is somewhat consistent with our neighbors in other suburban communities, however, our volume is higher being a first rung community near a major urban center.
Metro Alert: Has the type of crime or the volume of crime changed in the years you have been in charge? If so, in what ways?
Superintendent McGrath:The clearest change over the last three years has been the increase in burglaries. We saw it spike to a 10-year high in 2010, but fortunately, working with our partners in the region, we have chipped away at the problem and have seen the numbers continue to decline during 2011 and continuing into 2012. We are also seeing instances of identity theft and computer-related crime continue to increase.
Metro Alert: How do you overcome the challenges associated with the volume and type of work?
Superintendent McGrath: I have always felt, even as a patrol officer, that training is critical to maintaining and improving standards. By improving our officers’ skills – whether it’s for first aid, driving or fire arms, or for more dangerous or supervisory type training – it is important to ensure that we continue to build up our skills to meet the community’s needs. Nearly all of our patrol officers have crisis intervention specializations, helping them to address the needs of the mentally ill and those with special needs. With this being such a challenging time for police departments dealing with tight budgets and the inability to staff full departments, we need to make sure that we keep our focus on our mission and think into the future, providing our officers with the tools they need to best serve the community. Technology is a big part of helping us do this, especially when we are shorthanded.
Metro Alert: How has technology helped you run your department?
Superintendent McGrath: I remember when we had teleprinters in police cars and had to print out incident reports on thermal paper. Now, it is so much different. I was in charge of our department’s records management system implementation in the 1990s when we selected Metro Technology Services’ Visual Alert system. With an automated software solution, our officers have immediate access to reports from the field and it significantly reduces paperwork and downtime by allowing them to easily transmit information to and from headquarters. It also enables supervisors to access reports quickly and to ensure their units are meeting necessary standards, and really helps the patrol officers with their productivity and the quality of work they are able to provide on the streets.
Metro Alert: What do you like most about your job?
Superintendent McGrath: I like being able to help people and have a real impact on their lives. Police are often not thought about until they are really needed. Then, police are typically the first people called when someone needs assistance. I want to make sure that we are able to serve effectively when people in the community are in need of our services.
Metro Alert: How has police work changed since you started in 1979? Is it easier or harder to be an officer today?
Superintendent McGrath: Just like all jobs and careers, things change, new challenges present themselves. The challenge that officers face today is keeping up with technology, both in our field and as it impacts society. The time and effort required to provide the training programs needed is always increasing. Another significant change I have seen in the last several years is the reduced level of respect given to police officers. We have seen this manifested in the willingness of criminals to use firearms more readily when confronted by police, or on a less physically threatening level, to simply challenge police authority more frequently. This creates significant safety issues for officers working so diligently to protect our communities.
Metro Alert: What do you do in your spare time?
Superintendent McGrath: I am the Chair of Leadership Main Line, a program of the Main Line Chamber of Commerce that is aimed at developing and inspiring future leaders for the Main Line area. I was a graduate of the program in 2006. I am also President of my homeowners association. I enjoy running, biking with my wife, Roseann, and spending time with our two daughters, Casey (27) a graduate of Penn State University and
Natalie (17) who is now attending Penn State.