Robert Colville, former Pittsburgh police chief, county DA and judge, remembered as smart, funny, fair
Robert J. Colville’s long career in criminal justice took him from patrolman to police chief to district attorney to judge, leaving an impression on colleagues at every stop.
Colville, a lifelong North Side resident, died Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. He was 83.
“Bob had a spectacular career,” said Joseph Sabino Mistick, an associate professor of law at Duquesne University who worked for Colville at the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. “He was thoughtful, reflective and smart and kind and just a wonderful guy.”
Colville graduated from North Catholic High School in 1953. He later returned to coach the school’s football team. He served in the Marines and graduated from Duquesne University in 1963.
He began his local career in law enforcement as a Pittsburgh Bureau of Police patrolman in 1961. He ascended the ranks to homicide detective and was named chief in 1971 by then-Mayor Peter Flaherty, all while putting himself through law school at Duquesne.
Therese Rocco, Pittsburgh’s first female assistant police chief, began her career with the bureau in the 1960s in the missing persons unit, where she often worked with Colville when he was a homicide detective.
“Bob Colville had a tremendous sense of humor,” said Rocco, who retired in 1994. “When we went out on details, I always looked forward not only to do a job with Bob but also having a lot of laughs.”
She said Colville could find humor in everything – something that was essential in a job that could so often be grim.
“He could always give you the little remarks that would tempt you to laugh, but you would try not to,” Rocco said.
He was confident, competent and respectful, Rocco said, which was valuable when they worked together – often with Rocco acting as a decoy in certain situations. Rocco recalled her time with Colville in her memoir, “Therese Rocco: Pittsburgh’s First Female Assistant Police Chief.”
Colville served as chief of police until 1975 when he was elected Allegheny County district attorney. He took office as the county’s top prosecutor in 1976 and served until 1998, when he was succeeded by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
Zappala called it an honor to take over the office from Colville.
“(The) residents of this county are better off because of his dedication to public service over these many decades,” Zappala said in a statement. “The only thing more important than that for Bob was his dedication to his family and friends.”
Mistick didn’t expect to work for Colville. Mistick originally worked for Jack Hickton’s campaign for district attorney during the election in which Colville ran against – and defeated – Hickton.
Mistick said he was out of a job when Hickton lost and a subsequent job with the clerk of courts was eliminated. Colville called him into his office out of the blue one day.
“He said, ‘Joe, I have a job for you. It’s entry level, but it’s yours if you want it, and I promise I’ll move you up as soon as I can,’” Mistick said.
Mistick said he was incredulous and pointed out he’d worked on the Hickton campaign.
He said, ‘You did a good job for Jack. You were loyal, and I figure you’ll be loyal to me. You need a job,’” Mistick said. “Now that’s the measure of a man.”
Mistick would go on to work in various Pittsburgh city administrations, including as deputy mayor under Sophie Masloff. He said Colville helped many get their start with jobs in his office.
“He was the reason I came to Pittsburgh, and I never left,” said District Judge Tom Swan.
Swan was living in Washington, D.C., in 1988 when he applied for a job at the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. After getting it, Swan figured he’d stay for a few years. But then he met his wife, started a family and is still here 30 years later.
“I owe it to him for all that,” Swan said of Colville, who he worked under for the last decade of Colville’s tenure as DA.
He said that’s why he had Colville swear him in when he was elected magisterial district judge in 2016.
Swan said as Colville’s health began to decline in recent years, he got a call to test out armchairs for him.
“(His family) wanted to have a chair he could be comfortable in, and they asked me to sit in some La-Z-Boy chairs since we’re about the same height,” Swan said. “So I sat in some of them. I would do anything for him.”
Colville was quietly intelligent, Swan said, and street smart from his time as a cop. Perhaps most importantly, he was fair.
“He demanded respect, and I think he was respected by everyone that was in the courthouse. He wanted you to treat everyone on both sides of the law fairly,” he said. “He always said the scales of justice have to be balanced, and that’s a nice way to look at it.”
Those in the District Attorney’s Office called him Boss “not because he wanted us to, but because of our respect for him,” said Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.
Manning first worked with Colville in the District Attorney’s Office, an office Colville took over while Manning was an assistant district attorney.
“I came to know him very well by reason of working for him and by reason of being around him,” Manning said. “He was a fine, fine man. I never saw him angry or heard him raise his voice. He had a knack for finding something humorous in the most difficult situations.”
Manning called Colville strong, kind and loyal, particularly to those he worked with.
“He was a great friend and colleague,” he said. “It might be said too often, but they don’t make them like that anymore.”
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.