RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Police reform has become a hot topic across the country since the death of George Floyd in 2020.
To address it, the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Police Department is hiring more people. But they’re not just hiring officers, they’re hiring everyday people as well.
The VCU Police Department recently launched a team of Safety Ambassadors, who will patrol the campus and respond to service calls that don’t require an officer’s response. VCU Police Chief John Venuti said they have six members on the team.
“When we posted this position, we were kind of looking for like a unicorn,” he said. “They’re not police. They’re not security. They’re this other thing.”
Venuti said they hired people with a background in social work and mental healthcare, but had no previous experience in law enforcement. Safety Ambassadors complete Crisis Intervention training, just like police officers are required to do.
Derrick Sammons, a VCU Safety Ambassador, said he joined the team to relieve officers of some of their service calls and to give back to the VCU community.
“For me, it’s just all about helping people. I’ve never known exactly what that may look like, but however I could help people I just gravitate towards that,” he said.
Safety ambassadors handle calls like welfare checks at student resident halls, checking bike locks on campus to make sure they’re secure, jumpstarting someone’s car and non-medical transports. They handle more than 45 calls a day, VCU police said.
When they go out, they’re only armed with a walkie-talkie, a flashlight and a body camera.
“That’s really about it, we’re just here and just use our words,” Sammons said.
In 2020, following the unrest and protests that broke out after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, VCU’s Safety and Well-Being Advisory Committee gave the police department recommendations to improve public safety on campus, Venuti said.
The department received feedback from the community and the responses led Venuti to come up with this civilian response team.
“The safety ambassadors are now a great tool or extension of [the community] engagement that we’ve already been really, really heavily involved in,” he said.
Safety Ambassadors said they haven’t responded to a call that’s escalated to the point where police are needed for backup. But if it does, officers are always on standby, Venuti added.