Pittsburgh police chief builds community bonds through off-duty hobby
While his first photographs were taken on the job, Chief Scott Schubert now uses his hobby as a tool to interact with his community
PITTSBURGH — Scott Schubert, Pittsburgh’s police chief, routinely gets up at 5 a.m. to take pictures of the sunrise from Grandview Avenue on Mount Washington, the North Shore river walk and other vantage points.
“Sometimes you forget to take a picture because you’re so amazed at what you’re looking at,” he says, smiling despite the 30-degree temperature and 15-mph winds.
Schubert's top layer was his blue police uniform -- no hat or gloves. At least three times a week for the last 12 years, he has started his day in a dark, windswept place with his cell phone or the Canon Rebel T5 digital camera officers gave him as a 50th birthday gift three years ago.
“It opened a whole new world for me,” he says.
What he loves most is photographing the city where he has lived his entire life. He grew up in Beechview, the son of a Pittsburgh police officer, and now lives in Brookline with his wife, Lynn, and children, Alex and Haley. Scott started his police career in Coraopolis and joined the Pittsburgh force in 1993. His first photographs were for its Mobile Crime Unit. He used a Pentax K1000 to shoot black-and-white pictures of crime scenes, shell casings and bodies.
It’s laborious, sometimes heart-breaking work, but not nearly as high-pressure as the police chief’s job, which he has held since February 2017. His work day usually starts with an 8 a.m. meeting. But it really starts when he sets up his tripod.
“I wish I could do this every day,” Schubert says. “It gives me an opportunity to just focus and not think about other stuff.”
As the sky begins to lighten in the east, he points out the contrast between the white of the looming clouds and bands of midnight blue changing to indigo over Downtown.
That’s about the time that Billy Shafer walks up, curious why a cop is taking pictures of the sunrise. A Pittsburgh native, Shafer is back visiting family from his home in Owasso, Okla., and is staying in an Airbnb across the street. Schubert stops clicking to shoot the breeze. They quickly find common ground.
“I chased the Big Boy steam locomotive across Oklahoma in November,” Shafer says, referring to the historic Union Pacific engine that recently celebrated its 150th anniversary.
“I’ve always wanted to take a train ride out west,” Schubert says.
“Meeting and talking to people is one of my favorite things about doing this,” he says as Shafer heads back to his Airbnb.
While Schubert talks about the regulars he sees on Mount Washington, a big one strides up and hugs him. It’s Tunch Ilkin, the former Steelers’ offensive lineman and now a TV and radio analyst. He walks four miles every morning.
Schubert and Ilkin met years ago at the Pittsburgh Polar Plunge for Special Olympics, one of Scott’s favorite charities. On Feb. 29, he and dozens of other brave souls will again jump repeatedly into an unheated outdoor pool by Heinz Field.
Schubert often asks to take pictures of the people he meets while photographing the city. He posts them along with his panoramic pictures on his Instagram page, @pghpolicechief.
On the way home from work, Schubert sometimes pulls over to take pictures of sunsets or the city at night. He considers his interactions with Pittsburghers and visitors as part of the job. “People like to see a policeman in uniform.”
Except maybe drivers who coast through the nearby stop sign on Grandview Avenue. Does he give them a ticket?
“It depends on how they are,” Schubert says, smiling.