By Toby Tabachnick
From the time he was a child growing up on Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill, it was Jason Lando’s dream to be a Pittsburgh Police officer.
“At the time, it was Zone 6 — now it’s Zone 4 — but the police car used to race up and down the street, and I would just stand out there,” Lando recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I get older.’”
His parents thought it was just a childhood fantasy, said Lando, but he “never grew out of it.”
Now, after 20 years of serving the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police — and as a commander of Zone 5 since 2014 — Lando has accepted the position of chief of police in Frederick, Maryland.
While he has “loved every minute” of his career in his hometown, he wanted to pursue greater leadership opportunities, which were not currently available in Pittsburgh, he said.
Lando grew up attending Tree of Life Congregation and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. That’s one of the reasons being in command on Oct. 27, 2018, during the anti-Semitic massacre at the building, was so traumatic on both a personal and professional level.
His grandfather, Morris “Moe” Lebow, now 101, was a regular at Tree of Life, and Lando feared he was inside the building and had been shot.
As it turned out, Moe felt under the weather that day and had stayed home to rest.
“Looking back in my entire career, of all of the experiences that stuck out the most — good, bad, whatever — when I think about the Tree of Life, that absolutely, without a doubt, will always stick out in my mind,” Lando said. “It’s still something I think about every day, both because it was professionally one of the most difficult days of my life, but personally, it was absolutely the most horrific day of my entire life — personally, because I thought my grandfather was inside at the time, and professionally, because I was the incident commander that day.”
Lando still avoids driving past the building.
“Some of my family members go visit periodically and just reflect and pay their respects,” he said. “I can’t even go back there. And it has nothing to do with not wanting to honor the victims, but for me, that’s how I deal with it.”
He feels a bit sad about that.
Growing up, he said, “that’s where everyone gathered and that was kind of a hub for the Jewish community, especially the kids in Squirrel Hill. There were just so many memories there. And now looking back, I never think about the good memories anymore. It’s just that horrible day.”
Because he knows first-hand how stressful the job of a police officer can be, he hopes to make wellness and peer support one centerpiece of his tenure in Frederick.
“It never ceases to amaze me that we send officers out in the street to deal with all of society’s problems every day, but we do very little to make sure that they themselves are healthy and ready to go out and tackle those issues,” he said. “That weighs heavily on the officers, and I think that we can only expect the cops to treat people out in the street the way we treat them internally. So, I really hope to work with the officers to develop a program where they feel as though they’re healthy and taken care of every day.”
Frederick’s new police chief also plans to focus on community relations and education, and to help develop a model for responding to people in crisis — something that is being talked about on a national level.
Sometimes, an officer with only a week of crisis training has to handle a call. There has to be a better way, Lando said.
“It might take a mental health professional years to work with somebody in helping them get well,” he said. “And we’re putting a police officer in a situation where that person is in crisis, and that officer’s relying on their one week of training in how to safely get that situation under control.”
He hopes to partner with the Department of Health, government officials and medical professionals to come up with a model.
Lando, who starts his new job on March 8, has already visited Frederick a few times. While it “will never take the place of Pittsburgh,” there are some commonalities the two cities share, including a strong sense of community and a “pride in the city.”
Also, like in Pittsburgh, Frederick’s mayor and his staff “are supportive of the police department, but they also want to continue to move things forward,” Lando said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not the type of person that likes to just sit behind a desk and let things continue as is. And the mayor has made it clear that he hired me because of some of the forward-thinking and progressive philosophies I have. I’m just really looking forward to implementing some of those.”
Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor is “confident” that Lando will be “an excellent addition to our already high-performing police department,” he said in a prepared statement, noting Lando’s “commitment to procedural justice, officer training, officer well-being, work with community programs, including co-responder efforts and youth engagement priorities.”
“No police chief and no police department can be successful if they don’t have the support both of the community and the police officers,” Lando said. To that end, his first priority is to “really get to know the officers and the community members and find out what’s most important to them. And when we do develop programs and initiatives, make sure that we’re doing it with their voice.”
Lando will miss Pittsburgh and his friends and family here, he said, but he won’t be too far from home.
“You know, I didn’t just want to be a police officer when I was a little kid — I wanted to be a Pittsburgh Police officer. And so going to work every day as a police officer, but putting on a different department’s badge, is going to take some getting used to. But I’m only three hours down the road, and I plan on making frequent visits just to reconnect with family and friends.”
Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert congratulated Lando on his new position in a Facebook post.
“Jason always did an outstanding job staying focused and motivated, no matter what the circumstances were, and he effectively motivated and mentored others with his quick wit, experience, empathy, compassion and always leading by example,” he wrote. “Your service is greatly appreciated and you will be missed by your PBP family! We have no doubt you will do extremely well in your new role!”
Toby Tabachnick is editor of Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a WJW-affiliated publication.