If a police car stops beside you while you are strolling in Squirrel Hill on a Saturday, and the officer inside rolls down his window and calls you over, don’t be alarmed.
It just might be Officer David Shifren wishing you “Good Shabbos.”
Only a few Jewish police officers currently serve Pittsburgh — there are four, according to Shifren — but then again, Shifren may not fit your idea of a typical cop.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native came to the Steel City in 1989 to study fiction writing, earning his M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh. He has been teaching a popular film studies class at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for years and has published several books, including traditional Westerns and three mystery novels for a longtime best-selling young adult series. He has had three screenplays optioned, and another that piqued the interest of the late Tony Curtis, who invited Shifren to his home in Nevada to discuss playing the lead shortly before the actor died.
It was, in fact, Shifren’s passion for telling a good story that led him to his career as a cop.
Shifren was working on a book that had the protagonists in the young adult series for which he was writing attend a police academy, but he knew he had some research to do.
He was able to arrange some ride-alongs with a Pittsburgh police commander, he recalled, and became “fascinated” with what he saw: The cops he met here were interesting and funny, and had amazing psychological insights about the people they were policing.
That’s when Shifren had an epiphany.
“It occurred to me that to be either a cop or a writer you had to be very observant, interested in human nature and be able to communicate well,” he explained. “As a cop, it’s vital that you are able to talk to people — and all kinds of people.”
Shifren, who refers to himself as a “word guy,” decided to enter the police academy, ostensibly to do more research for his book.
“But on some other level, I was thinking about it as a career,” he recognized.
He admits his background is “unusual” for a cop.
“The liberal arts, fiction-writing background is not standard,” Shifren acknowledged, but being a “word guy” has its advantages in the field.
“A cop that can speak well can maybe avoid having some situations escalate,” Shifren noted. “Administrators and chiefs view that as a valuable quality and background.”
The affable Shifren, who has been policing Zone 4 — which includes Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Oakland, Regent Square and Hazelwood — since 2013, began his police career in Baldwin Borough, where he served for about five years.
While working in Baldwin, he initiated a summer program for youth — a movie night to keep kids who otherwise might be getting into trouble occupied.
“There were a lot of instances of criminal mischief,” Shifren said, noting that a lot of the local kids did not have enough to do with their time once school let out for the summer.
Shifren convinced Pizza Hut to donate snacks and Blockbuster to donate films, and Shifren donated his own time to lead the youth in a discussion of the films.
While he appreciated his time in Baldwin, once he joined the Pittsburgh police and a slot opened in Zone 4, he was eager to serve its more diverse population.
“Policing a variety of people makes for a more experienced and open-minded kind of cop,” he observed.
Shifren lives in Squirrel Hill as well, and though he is not particularly religiously observant, he does attend services from time to time at a local congregation.
Seeing his Orthodox neighbors walking to and from shul is comforting to the New York native.
“It reminds me of home,” he said.
Although, as a Jew, he is a minority on the police force, his colleagues have embraced him.
“This past New Year’s, one of the non-Jewish cops came in with a big Dunkin’ Donuts box,” he recounted, noting as an aside that the cliché about cops and donuts is true. “He said, ‘Shifren, I got one especially for you.’”
When Shifren opened the box, he saw his donut among the dozens of others: an iced-blue confection, decorated with a Jewish star.
“So, you feel comfortable,” Shifren said. “I took it exactly as it was meant — in good humor.”
Shifren’s Jewish background has helped make him a better cop, he said.
“I’m happy to have the Jewish background I do,” he remarked. “From what I understand about Jewish outlook and ideology, Jewish people — especially scholars and rabbis — understand that not everything is necessarily black or 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.”
Shifren’s love for his work is palpable.
“As a police officer,” he confessed, “you have a ringside seat to the greatest show on Earth.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.