Wednesday was a difficult day for the Altoona Police Department and Chief Joe Merrill as Blair County Corrections Officer Rhonda Jean Russell, 47, was killed in the line of duty.
Merrill had previously been scheduled to speak to members of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club on Thursday and went forward with the event, taking the opportunity to talk about Wednesday’s incident and the work officers do to protect the public.
Russell was killed by “friendly fire” after a male inmate disarmed her during a struggle at the Central Court building, 615 Fourth St., according to state police. An officer at the scene fired his weapon and a round struck Russell. She was pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona.
Merrill said it was a tragic event, and “everyone was affected by it.”
“I just wish to send thoughts and prayers to the victim and the victim’s family,” he said. “It was a tragic day for everyone. … It was just a horrible event.”
It was a somber program, and Chamber President/CEO Joe Hurd said he would have understood if Merrill decided not to come.
“We appreciate him being here this morning after the terrible situation that happened yesterday. He said he wanted to make sure he kept his promise, and I have extra respect for him for that,” Hurd said.
Merrill said he grew up in Centre County and came from a law enforcement family.
He graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2005, and in 2020, he earned a master’s degree in criminal justice policy and administration.
Merrill joined the Altoona Police Department in 2006 and has held several positions. After acting as interim police chief, following Janice Freehling’s retirement in March, Merrill was appointed in May to the full-time position.
“I held many titles over the years, which set me up for a successful leadership position. As my career progressed I got to see what it takes to keep a police department running. I consider myself extremely fortunate to work with and be mentored by Janice Freehling and Tony Alianello. They set gold standards as far as work ethic and caring about the community and the employees. I was honored to be mentored by them,” Merrill said.
Merrill said the department is lucky to have community support.
“I get lots of calls and texts saying ‘good job,’” he said. “I deserve less credit; it is the work of extraordinary officers I get to work with.”
Merrill said he is working to figure out ways to fulfill the department’s goal of supporting the community.
“Not everyone loves police departments,” he said. “We’ve received more support than a lot of police departments statewide and across the nation. We appreciate that we have more community support than most, we need to earn that and maintain that.”
Merrill said APD is a young department, which is an asset as the younger officers “are more patient and better with technology and adapt to change better than officers in the past.”
Currently, the department has 59 officers, with 51 active and eight in training.
The budget is for 62 officers, Merrill said, noting that when he came on board, there were 74 officers.
“With 70-74 officers we can do a lot of good things. The goal for next year is to get up to 66 officers. I would love to see the department grow to where it was when I started,” Merrill said.
While it is difficult to recruit new officers, Merrill said he’s been trying to come up with ways to be proactive and interact with the community.
“We’ve done some re-organizing and not filling specialty positions and assigned things to other officers,” he said. “We started the Community Engagement Detail, where officers go out to parks, pools, blocks where people congregate to talk and walk around.”
He said it is also important to increase training, as officers deal with more than criminal conduct.
“(We) expect them to do more and be experts in more than they ever had,” he said.
Merrill said he considers himself lucky to be with the APD.
“Our officers are doing an amazing job,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.