Thursday, September 23, 2010


New District 1 Commander says repairing relationships a top priority

The new District 1 police commander wants students who have fallen victim to crime in College Park to know: He has felt their pain.

Almost 20 years ago, when Maj. Robert Liberati was off-duty for a family function, he saw his father get mugged at a gas station in Philadelphia. He leapt to intervene. The scuffle that ensued left Liberati bruised up, his brand new suit shredded. His father suffered injuries as well, some of which he will never recover from.

As the now-commander of Prince George's County's District 1 wrestled with his father's assailant in broad daylight, a crowd of people gathered at the South Philadelphia intersection to observe the fracas. And they weren't exactly pulling for Liberati.

"They weren't a lawful crowd," he said. "They were cheering the bad guy on."

In the end, he came out on top - his opponent was arrested and ultimately spent more than a year in prison.

Now Liberati, who started his newest position in May, looks to take on a different kind of fight. After some county police officers were videotaped striking students with nightsticks following a Terrapin basketball victory in March, the department's image took a beating that he said must be repaired.

"That situation was just bad all around. It was bad for us; it was bad for students; it was bad for the university. And I don't think it portrayed things the way they are," he said.

With that in mind, Liberati said that his goal, for the duration of his commandership, will be to repair fragile relationships.

Liberati, 48, has always believed in the virtues of law enforcement. Ever since he was young, Liberati knew he where he would end up.

Born in Philadelphia, Liberati spent the majority of his childhood in Prince George's County, where he will celebrate his 25th year as a member of the county police force next month.

When he first expressed interest in joining the ranks, Liberati said his family was less than thrilled. Instead, he earned an accounting degree from this university. His father, a certified public accountant, was hopeful Liberati would continue in that profession.

Instead, over the years, Liberati has worked in six major roles for county police. Based on his first months as commander, he said his latest position is panning out to be the most difficult.

Heading District 1 means fielding 4,800 calls per week. It means leading a staff in the most concentrated district of the 32nd largest police department in the country, in the most crime-ridden county in the state. It means working 60-70 hours a week and being on-call 24/7, all while attempting to protect the more than 26,000 undergraduate students at the state's flagship university, many of whom have their doubts about county police.

Looking to overcome that, Liberati, along with University Police, organized a welcome night earlier this month for students and officers to interact in a non-enforcement environment. He also has plans for a bonfire on the campus, which he hopes will organize the chaos after big athletic wins. His top priorities are that students are safe and businesses are not damaged, he said.

Liberati's colleagues point to his approachability as the one thing that sets him apart from other officers on the force.

"He is very sensitive to the perception that students have of the police department," University Police Chief David Mitchell said. "He is committed to improving that."

At the same time he works to improve the image of police, Liberati said he also wants to help students avoid a negative image.

"We want the reputation of the University of Maryland to be strong. It helps the community; it helps the county; it helps the state," he said. "It helps bring money in."

Mitchell called Liberati an "outreach specialist" in these efforts and said his laid-back nature comes from years of experience.

"[As a] senior law enforcement official, he's just as genuine there as he is in public. What you see is what you get," Mitchell added. "As for his laid back nature, that's clearly something that comes with experience on the job. He is one of the most experienced members on the county police force."

Liberati has made over 200 criminal arrests, earned acclaim for his efforts against driving under the influence, developed a sex offenders registry that easily organized offenders for civilians to access, closed a string of forgeries that led to $9,000 in losses and, most recently, utilized a $10 million grant to help make police data available portably.

Liberati said every police officer ultimately looks back at their days on the street as those they remember most fondly.

"If I was told today, ‘Liberati you're going to be retired next month,' I think I would ask the chief if I could just go back on the street for the last couple weeks," he said. "Just to end it where I started."

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