David Jellison retired from the Pittsburgh police force after nearly three decades of service. Though he had a long career that eventually earned him a promotion to detective, Jellison’s original life plan did not include law enforcement, and it wouldn’t occur to him to start down that path until he was standing in his apartment at 3am, holding a gun, trying to find a pair of pants.
A lot happened before that moment, though.
Like many modern Pittsburgh stories, Jellison’s begins with the collapse of the steel industry. J&L Steel closed, leaving Jellison unsure of what to do next. He earned an associate’s degree but still struggled to find work, so he looked beyond Pittsburgh for career opportunities.
“My father always told me if I wanted to make something of myself to join the military,” Jellison says. “It gave me much needed discipline, and I saw a lot of the world that I would never see had I not joined.”
Being in the Navy meant travel around the globe and deployments to the middle east. In fact, for his last deployment, he had been married for a brief week when he got the call. He knew he wanted to spend more time Pittsburgh and less time away, so he at the end of that 8-month deployment he began planning his transition out. Taking advantage of a leave time that he saved up, he built a runway for himself to come home, reacclimate to civilian life, and find a new career.
After a few weeks of feeling like he did when J&L Steel first closed, the moment with the gun and the pants came.
“[My wife, Cindy, and I] were home sleeping,” Jellison says. “We lived on the ground floor in a one-floor apartment. I woke up to Cindy hitting me. I thought, ‘She’s got her side of the bed, what could she possibly want?'”
As Jellison gathered his senses and adjusted to the darkness, he saw Cindy pointing nervously toward the French doors that divided their bedroom from their dining room. Someone was closing them.
Jellison motioned for his wife to stay quiet and grabbed an old black powder pistol from under his bed. He moved slowly toward the doors.
“My brother and I would go out to Eighty-Four to shoot those things,” Jellison says. “They took like ten minutes to load. I didn’t have that sort of time, but it was nice and heavy, and I figured I could bluff him.”
Jellison stepped out of the bedroom and called to the burglar. He told the burglar he had a gun, and that if the burglar didn’t come out and put his hands above his head, he would start shooting into the apartment. Jellison clicked the cylinder of the empty gun for added effect.
After a tense pause, the burglar stepped forward and got down on the ground.
“I told Cindy to call the police, and as I’m standing there with the gun, I realize I don’t have any pants on, so I start to panic that cops are going to show up and I’m just going to be standing there.”
With some creative maneuvering, Jellison covered up without lowering his empty gun, just in time for the police to arrive.
As the burglar was handcuffed, a casual conversation with the officers turned into something important: “You should think about joining the force,” an officer said to Jellison.
And he did.
From there, Jellison rose through the ranks, spending most of his law enforcement career in the East End. In 2011, The Post-Gazette reported that Jellison had been a part of over 8000 cases as one of the longest running police duos in Pittsburgh history, and Jellison also received accolades for bravery, one time running into a burning home to rescue a child while his partner yelled from the outside to help him keep his bearings.
Jellison is slow to brag, however. Not every story he was a part of had a happy ending, but many did, and he learned a lot about the Pittsburgh community by being one of the first people on the scene during difficult moments.
“You see the good and the bad in people,” Jellison says. “You see a lot of good that comes out of people in a bad situation.”
In the face of tragedy, Jellison would see communities come together and offer help and support to their neighbors. They would share food, shelter, and band together to find solutions for problems. Crime is hard on everybody, Jellison says, and even with emotions running high, Pittsburgh families by and large tried to do the neighborly thing. To help. To do some good.
Jellison’s law enforcement career put him in front of news camera on many occasions and put him in danger just as often. After 28 years on the force and good portion of that spent in the Narcotics Division as a detective, he wanted to spend more time with his wife.
“I couldn’t have done everything I’ve done without Cindy being there,” Jellison says. “She has always been behind me no matter what.”
Whether it was to hand him pants before the police burst through their door or to believe in him during the toughest times of a stressful career, Cindy was there.
And, in part thanks to Cindy, Jellison was there for the Pittsburgh community, to help make it a better place for our families and our neighbors.
Thank you for your service, Dave.
David Jellison is still retired. In between side projects and hobbies, he volunteers for Animal Friends.