One day last October, as he was approaching his 20th year working at the Allentown Police Department, the thought of retirement lingering in his mind, Chief Keith Morris received a text message from his police officer brother-in-law, Inspector Daniel Reagan, of the Easton Police Department.
The text was about a police chief position opening up at Morris’s college alma mater.
Morris received the text message just two days before the application deadline. In a recent interview, Morris, 43, said he now looks back at the text as a sign — he was meant to be the police chief at Penn State — a job he’s been in since April 20.
“I loved my time here at Penn State, and I owe Penn State for everything that I have and where I am today,” Morris said. “I’ve always wanted to give back to the university. I thought, what better of a way for me to give back to the university than by doing something I’ve spent my entire adult life doing?”
So he went from leading the Allentown department with 222 sworn officers to Penn State’s department with about 50 sworn officers.
Morris, who is from Shamokin, said he took up an interest in criminal justice in college, when he also learned that both his great-grandfather and uncle were police officers. He said he felt that, because of the family history, it was something he was meant to do.
Morris graduated from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in administration of justice in 1991 and got his master’s in criminal justice from DeSales University in 2012.
He started out his career as a probation officer in Northumberland before joining the Allentown department in 1997. He gradually rose through the ranks, becoming chief of police in 2016.
Although he may not have experience working on a college campus the size of University Park, Morris said that during his time with the Allentown Police Department, he was a police captain on the west end of Allentown where two college campuses, Muhlenberg College and Cedar Crest College, are located.
Morris said he gained experience dealing with the same kind of town-gown issues that he works with here at Penn State, such as issues between neighborhood residents and fraternity houses.
“In order for us to be a successful police department and in order for us to have a safe campus, we need to engage our faculty members, our students and other key stakeholders not only on campus, but in the State College area so we all work together to solve problems and work out issues,” Morris said.
Morris said he wants to focus on “employing a department-wide, community-oriented policing philosophy.” That is, he said he wants to make sure police officers are visible and approachable to everyone in the Penn State and State College community.
He said students should know that campus police officers are there for them as resources, and he wants residents of State College to know that Penn State police cares about how students act both on and off campus.
“He’s very approachable — he’s not the rigid, strict type of guy,” said Reagan. “He recognizes the importance of community, being accessible to the people that you work for, helping solve their problems, but also being there for the members of the police department too.”
Morris said the biggest challenge for him has been learning how large-scale events like Penn State football games operate.
“He brings a strong background in policing, and he brings an excitement and commitment to excellence that I think will bear well for the department,” said Charlie Noffsinger, Penn State assistant vice president for police and public safety, Morris’s boss. “He’s demonstrated commitment to community policing and collaboration and making sure we’re doing the right things for the right reasons in the right way.”
Morris, who is married and has three children, enjoys running and traveling. He is also part of Penn State President Eric Barron’s newly appointed Greek-life response team.
“Allentown is the third largest police department in the state of Pennsylvania — the issues they see are a lot different than the issues we see here,” Morris said. “Here, it’s all about ensuring one our officers are safe and, two, our students are safe and also that students are having a great experience here at college. We don’t want anyone to have a bad experience here at Penn State.”
Katie DeFiore is a Penn State journalism student.