By David Rullo for Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
Like a serialized detective story, David Shifren’s life has been written across volumes, each with its own theme and flavor.
Mr. Shifren is a Pittsburgh police officer assigned to the city’s community engagement office, but at the end of January, he began penning the next edition of his story. After more than a decade of service, Mr. Shifren retired.
As origin stories go, Mr. Shifren’s is more surprising than most.
After teaching grade school English in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Brooklyn native came to Pittsburgh in 1989 to earn a master’s in fine arts from the University of Pittsburgh.
While at Pitt, Mr. Shifren befriended someone who was ghostwriting for a popular young adult detective series.
“I decided it would be great to write a few books, including one about working for a circus, which I had done in college,” he said.
Mr. Shifren ended up writing a story that included a character going to a police academy. For research, he did the same thing — and became the oldest person to graduate from the academy.
He began by doing “ride-alongs with Pittsburgh police homicide detectives,” he said. “It was just so fascinating that it moved to the direction of policing, and when I finally went to the academy and found it so interesting, I became a cop when I was offered a job.”
Mr. Shifren first worked for Baldwin Borough’s police department before moving to the city.
Teaching, writing and policing require similar disciplines, he said.
“You have to be observant. You have to be a good listener. If you’re writing fiction, you have to be thinking about character motivation and they have to act in believable ways, motivated by believable impulses,” Mr. Shifren explained.
As a police officer, he said, he spent a lot of time chatting with people, listening to them and reading between the lines.
Over the years, Mr. Shifren said he’s had the opportunity to combine his police work and writing. While working in Zone 4, comprising Hazelwood, Oakland, Regent Square, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, he wrote a weekly snapshot that described the past week’s crimes and included tips to avoid becoming a victim, something to which he brought a little humor. For instance, when writing that guns were often stolen when left behind in cars, he added, “You can’t do that.”
“People wrote and said, ‘This is great. I look forward to reading it each week,” he said.
In the end, though, it may be the nontraditional police work Mr. Shifren did for which he is most remembered.
While working in Baldwin, he started a summer program for youth — a movie night — to keep kids occupied. That made sense to the former schoolteacher who continues to teach, leading a popular film studies class at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
When he moved to Zone 4, Mr. Shifren started a chess club in Hazelwood.
“It was interesting to see how well it was received,” he said. “Kids would come. Parents would send their kids because it was a way to keep them safe in a library with a cop. Business owners liked it because it kept the kids productively engaged.”
The game, he said, has proven in many studies to teach critical thinking and problem-solving — skills that helped the kids improve their grades and make better decisions.
The program was so popular that when former Pittsburgh Steelers player Josh Dobbs learned of it, he not only came and played with the members of the club, but he wrote a check to cover end-of-the-year trophies, medals and meals.
Eventually, Mr. Shifren replicated the program in other neighborhoods, including Beechview, Brookline, Knoxville and Sheridan. It ended when COVID-19 forced the libraries to close.
Where some found barriers, though, Mr. Shifren saw an opportunity. He moved the game outdoors in Market Square on Tuesdays at lunchtime. Instead of children, who were unable to come downtown in the middle of the day, a new group of players began to form: his fellow officers, people on lunch breaks and tourists.
He remembered one Russian tourist visiting Pittsburgh who remarked on the oddity of the games, saying, “In my country, you never see this — police playing chess with the citizens.”
The games even attracted a few young people who had learned how to play chess while in prison, which helped develop trust between the police and former convicts.
While working in the city’s Arlington neighborhood, Mr. Shifren started a conversation with a woman reading a book. When she mentioned that reading got her through rehab, the community-minded officer thought a short story discussion group might prove useful.
He was able to convince the University of Pittsburgh, where he was teaching his Osher course, to sponsor the group in both Homewood and the Hill District.
Stories were picked that would be relatable to those attending.
“The stories and conversations were great,” he said. “Often race came up, but not in an antagonistic or touchy way. Talking about stories was a great door-opening to all kinds of conversations.”
Mr. Shifren said the way he polices is influenced by the various roles he’s played in his former careers.
“It’s like writing to me, or teaching. You’re switching hats,” he said. “First, you’re a writer, then a reader, then an editor fixing what the reader didn’t get and then writing again. You’re switching hats all the time.”
The various programs, Mr. Shifren said, have an added benefit in the community.
“If you can develop relationships and trust — trust is a key word — trusting relationships between the police and community, then things roll better for everyone,” he said. “People may not be panicked when police show up in their neighborhood. They can help prevent crime by being willing to talk with people.”
If Mr. Shifren’s policing career seems unique, there’s another aspect that has made him even more unique to the force: He’s Jewish.
In 2015, Mr. Shifren told the Chronicle that he appreciated his Jewish background.
“From what I understand about Jewish outlook and ideology, Jewish people — especially scholars and rabbis — understand that not everything is necessarily black and white. If you’re a good cop, it’s important to listen to both sides. You can’t prejudge or go in with expectations. You have to be open-minded.”
Mr. Shifren is still planning his next step and said that he’s waiting to see if there will be an opportunity to continue with any of the programs he’s developed. He does plan to continue his writing, picking up on at least one project he’s had in the works for some time.
As he looked back, he said, it’s been the multi-volume story he’s been able to write that has proved most beneficial in his life.
“I think this may be the success secret: If you can bring aspects of what you used to do and enjoyed, to what you want to do in the future, that’s a good thing,” he said.
This story was first published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and is republished with permission through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. It has been edited lightly for style. Read more at jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com.