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New Penn State Police Chief Looking Forward to Challenges and Opportunities

by on September 03, 2019 7:31 PM

New Penn State Police Chief of Operations Joseph Milek is up for a challenge.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Milek has 26 years of experience in law enforcement, both with a city police department and at two universities. But in his new role he faces a unique task: overseeing operations of one police department spread out across Pennsylvania at 22 campuses.

"I’ve been doing this long enough in varied roles that it allows me to compare and contrast the different experiences I’ve had. That’s where I feel comfortable stepping into this role, as comfortable as you can," Milek said. "Yes, it is challenging. It’s a great challenge. I look at challenges philosophically as opportunities. That’s one of the neat things about coming here. The challenge itself is an opportunity for me to grow and to share my experiences of 26 years with a new institution."

Based out of University Park, Milek began his Penn State tenure on Aug. 26, replacing former chief Keith Morris, who left the university in February after two years in the role. Milek now works alongside Chief of Police Administration John Petrick under Charlie Noffsinger, assistant vice president for University Police and Public Safety.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Milek worked in Security Police while serving in the Air Force before beginning a more than 20-year career with the Cincinnati Police Department. It was there, under the guidance of his mentor Tom Streicher, that he began build the diverse experience and skills that he would need to oversee the police department of a geographically-dispersed flagship university.

"Early on [Streicher] impressed upon me the need to have varied experience and how education was important to continue to move up through the ranks into leadership positions," Milek said. "One of the best things he ever said was 'Never confuse an assignment with a career.' If you look at my resume, my career has been one assignment after another trying to get that expertise so that I could take the whole and use it to run a police department.

"He was a very good mentor and teacher and an even better leader, so I’ve taken a lot of what he imparted and have run with it."

Education became a key for Milek's move to university police departments. While working as an officer, he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati and graduated from the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville. He then completed a master's degree in criminal justice administration at Xavier University. 

"Early in my career I had people saying 'You’re a cop, why are you going to get a master’s degree?' Now a lot of people through the years have said 'We gave you a hard time but now everyone’s trying to play catch up to get their degrees,'" he said. "So they realize how important education is."

After earning his master's he was invited to teach at Xavier and the head of the criminal justice program told him she believed Milek would be the university's next police chief.

"I kind of chuckled. I had no intent but within a few years later the opportunity came about," he said. "I felt I was prepared with experience in municipal policing and my education and professional development at the Southern Police Institute. I took the position at Xavier University. I was there for two years. It's one of the highlights of my law enforcement career. It was an amazing opportunity and the people there were fantastic."

In 2017, another opportunity arose some 800 miles away. Milek became assistant chief at Oklahoma State University, moving from top cop at the small, private Xavier to No. 2 in Stillwater, a move to gain experience at a large state university with a goal of one day being in charge of a large department.

Earlier this year, the Penn State job came open and it appealed to Milek for a variety of reasons.

"I had taken the position at Oklahoma State University as the No. 2 to prepare for such an opportunity," he said. "Being from Buffalo, New York, working in Cincinnati all those years, I’ve always been back and forth through Pennsylvania. The reputation of the university, the description of the position and the challenges that come with it were a natural attraction. I couldn’t help but put my name in and then it happened.

"I’m extremely thankful to the university for giving me this opportunity and I am going to do everything I can to live up to the challenge. It’s only been a week but I think we’ve gotten off to a fantastic start."

From a city police department, to a smaller Catholic university, to a state school of about 25,000 students, each of Milek's stops have been different, but he says each has added to his policing and leadership skills to prepare him for his new role at Penn State.

"I believe the maturity, the experience, coming from a background of a municipal police department and then having higher education to back that up, I’d like to believe I’m bringing a complete package to Penn State University and I’ll be able to contribute and hit the ground running," he said.

And with the new challenges he now faces with his position overseeing police operations at 22 campuses, Milek, who describes himself as "direct" and "straightforward," says the key is the same as it's been at his other stops: building relationships.

"In one week there’s been plenty of opportunities to talk and say 'How did you do it here and how are we doing it here and what does this look like?' So the conversational piece is the most important part, always — building relationships, building rapport. And you do that not through emails and not through memos but through conversations," he said. "Just talking about the challenges and having other people view those challenges as opportunities as well just gets you into speaking a common language very quickly... Each institution has allowed me to bring a different perspective, a different set of ideas and just build upon them. It’s a learning experience for me and I’m sure it will be a learning experience for people here that work with me."

Milek is a big sports fan, as well, and said a part of what he's enjoyed about working in campus environments is getting to know student-athletes as people and not just sports figures. Being from Buffalo himself, he's also followed the University of Buffalo's teams over the years, but when the Bulls come to town to play the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, his rooting interest will be with his new home team.

"I have followed [Buffalo] and they have a great program. I wish them all the best of luck," he said. "But if you’re asking me where my loyalty stands, this weekend it’s here at Penn State. I love Buffalo. I love the program. Their football and basketball they’ve taken to a whole other level recently. I think that’s great for the community.

"But this is Penn State. We are… Penn State. I’ve heard that a time or two since I’ve been here."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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