Penn State police chief to resign; university offers update on contract negotiations

Centre Daily Times, file

Penn State’s police chief is set to resign Thursday to pursue other opportunities and spend more time with his family, according to the university.

Keith Morris, a Penn State alumnus who served as chief since April 2017 and a 20-year veteran of the Allentown Police Department, was in charge of police operations at 22 university campuses. Deputy Chief Tom Sowerby remains the commanding officer at University Park.

“I have truly valued my time at Penn State, and while this is the right decision for me, I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to serve as a law enforcement leader at Penn State,” Morris said in a statement.

The university is “rapidly moving ahead” with its national search to fill Morris’ position, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.

Penn State police are divided into six districts, each with a district commander who will report to Charlie Noffsinger, assistant vice president for Penn State police and public safety. Noffsinger accepted Morris’ resignation in January.

David Gray, senior vice president for finance and business, voiced confidence that the search for a more permanent replacement will allow police and public safety to “continue its upward momentum.”

Collective bargaining discussions with Penn State police union

Meanwhile, Powers said the university has offered a contract proposal that is being considered by the Penn State University Police Officers’ Association. That development is “completely unrelated” to Morris’ resignation, she said.

PSU-POA President Josh Quimby said the union is in the midst of ratification discussions, but logistical clarifications have delayed a vote. The union hopes to clear those up soon and looks forward to “ratifying the contract ASAP,” he said.

The university and the PSU-POA have been bargaining since at least October. In late summer, the union asked Penn State to remove Noffsinger from his position in a “vote of no confidence” letter addressed to Penn State President Eric Barron, Gray, Morris and several other university officials.

All but two of 106 officers voted they have no confidence in Noffsinger’s leadership, according to the letter.

“We have lost all confidence and faith in AVP Noffsinger’s abilities to lead or manage this University’s Police & Public Safety Department,” former PSU-POA president Juan Castro wrote in the letter. “Noffsinger’s flippant demeanor in regards to the current working conditions that have been brought to his attention has dragged morale, system-wide, to an all-time low. The results of this fact has affected retention of highly skilled officers and hampered the recruitment of highly qualified applicants exacerbating our preexisting staffing crisis.”

That staffing crisis has forced officers to be assigned, voluntarily or involuntarily, to the northeast district — which includes the Lehigh Valley, Schuylkill, Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton campuses — to help soften the “serious staffing issues,” according to Quimby.

In an October response, Gray said the university takes employees’ concerns seriously and supported Noffsinger, who is “currently playing a crucial leadership role in (collective bargaining agreement) negotiations.”

Powers reaffirmed the university’s support for Noffsinger on Tuesday. Neither he nor Morris immediately answered messages seeking comment Tuesday evening.

“Noffsinger assuming the interim role of Chief Morris is no more concerning for us than before since Noffsinger has always had full operational control of the department, which is the reason the no confidence vote was directed at him,” Quimby wrote in an email. “We hope that Noffsinger and the university’s senior administration has taken the issues seriously enough to make the right changes to stop the damage from worsening and we are committed to working with them to do so if they are willing to partner with us.”

Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.