By Corey Byers
Safety ambassadors: A VCU Police civilian response team is now assigned to both campusesMarch 6, 2023 Tom Kojcsich photo, VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications
As soon as a pair of safety ambassadors recently pulled up near Virginia Commonwealth University’s Shafer Court Dining Center for a patrol shift, they got a call for a patient transport. The ambassadors, outfitted in neon yellow and black uniforms, jumped back into an SUV marked “Safety Ambassador” and headed toward the VCU Medical Center.
Starting in February, the VCU Police Department activated a new, six-member team of unarmed staff members known as safety ambassadors. The nonsworn unit responds to calls for service on VCU’s campuses that do not require a police officer.
While patrol is a key part of their duties, safety ambassador supervisor Brian Sussman said a variety of other calls are coming their way. The team is handling an average of 46 calls per day.
Like officers, ambassadors take part in mobile and foot patrols and property checks, including VCU’s parking lots and garages. They also handle nonmedical transports between VCU Health facilities, assist police with community outreach events and assist with welfare checks on students living in residence halls.
“We are physically taking over a portion of calls from the police department,” Sussman said. “And this is what we are navigating, we want to meet the needs of police and community members; our No. 1 goal is to work with the student body and focus on their safety.”
Each ambassador completed mental health training to include CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) and Mental Health First Aid. The training helps them identify when someone is going through a mental health crisis and informs them how to render aid or properly offer resources to the individual. Overall, safety ambassadors receive 188 hours of required training before beginning duty.
“There have been calls where students don't want to see an armed officer in their residence hall,” Sussman said. “I think students want to see a different approach to responses, and I think it's honestly a progressive form of policing.”
Community members can ask ambassadors for assistance in person, or VCU Police dispatchers will deploy safety ambassadors to a predetermined list of call types. Should a situation require a sworn police officer, dispatchers will send the officer accordingly.
Creating a new safety model for VCU
The safety ambassador concept was a result of nationwide, statewide and local concerns about policing.
In 2020, VCU created the Safety and Wellbeing Advisory Committee (SWAC) to improve its public safety model. One of the committee’s final recommendations in 2021 was that the university create a nonsworn crisis and de-escalation unit.
“Since that time, I’ve been working to create a new model for responses from the ground up,” said VCU Police Chief John Venuti. “This has been an incremental process, but we wanted it to be very intentional and, ultimately, have the safety ambassadors’ duties specifically reflect the needs of the VCU community.”
Venuti, who is also the associate vice president for public safety for VCU and VCU Health, first hired a supervisor, Sussman. Sussman then took the lead with Venuti to build out a training program, along with a unit-specific response model.
Sussman said VCU’s safety ambassadors are unique in their training and operations.
“Other departments may use a crisis response team model, in which a sworn police officer accompanies a licensed clinician to a call,” he said. “Here, we’ve identified those less serious, resource-based calls for service that are assigned to ambassadors.”
Venuti has also ensured the ambassadors are working in lock-step with sworn officers; they use police radios, have dedicated uniforms and vehicles and work to support the overall goals of the department.
“Looking back, we know there have historically been calls that never really needed a sworn officer, but now we have a team in place that can respond,” Venuti said. “Now we have dedicated staff who can provide resources. They are freeing up officers for strategic operations and more serious incidents.”
Looking for feedback as the unit evolves
While the team is still new, initial feedback from community members is mainly positive. The ambassadors hand out Guardian Score cards with QR codes; community members can scan the code and use it to report feedback on interactions with officers and ambassadors.
“While I was panicking and having anxiety (in silence), he was able to make me feel comfortable and ‘normal’ despite the circumstances,” one community member wrote of an ambassador. “He offered care that wasn’t required. I hope he continues to thrive!”
Venuti said it’s possible the unit could increase in size in the future, but for now he’s focusing on possibly adding nonemergency responsibilities to what they handle.
“The community was very clear that there was a need for a nonsworn response team,” Venuti said. “Getting the unit established and deployed to help people is a huge accomplishment for us. We’re listening and we’re willing to rethink how we meet the public safety needs of every person at VCU.”
By Corey Byers