Watchful eye: A day in the life of VCU Police Chief John Venuti

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When it comes to tracking progress for the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department, Chief John Venuti is a numbers guy.

Statistics, phone numbers for contacts, even the number of pushups for new police recruits who lose a physical training challenge — he’s got a number for almost anything.

Yes, he’s got the standard stats that any law enforcement agency would have: numbers of arrests, numbers of incidents and numbers of tickets issued.

But for Venuti, those are not the only ones that matter — not in the bigger picture.

Venuti makes the overarching, day-to-day decisions for a department of 92 officers, dozens of civilian staff and hundreds of security personnel across two campuses.

Three would actually be the key number for him, because he will tell anyone who asks what the top three guiding principles are for VCUPD: collaboration, innovation and technology. The words are like a mantra for him and serve as a subtle backdrop to what staff in the department focus on.

“I want my officers and staff to have an all-out, community policing policy as part of their daily tasks,” Venuti said. “That’s the best way to approach law enforcement — to think about how best to serve the community and work with whoever we need to. The ultimate goal is to find reasonable, forward-thinking solutions to problems.”

On any given day the chief may meet with students, such as those in student government, advocacy groups or those who stop him to chat as he walks through campus in uniform. He routinely meets with university administrators and has strong partnerships with offices and agencies outside VCU.

Making those connections between students, faculty, staff and other organizations is what drives the police department forward.

The VCU Police Department hosts an annual chili cook-off to raise money for charity.
The VCU Police Department hosts an annual chili cook-off to raise money for charity.

The VCUPD recently hosted its Fifth Annual Chili Cook-Off with VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart to benefit the FRIENDS Association for Children in Richmond.

Numbers mattered — who came in first, how much money was raised, how many event T-shirts were sold and how many people attended. Those numbers were all part of a single effort out of many that Venuti could be creating, or supporting, on any given day.

Before starting a career in law enforcement, Venuti had been formally trained as a chef, so the chili contest falls in line with his culinary interests as well as his community policing efforts.

“The Chili Cook-Off is one of those days that people look forward to and it ultimately helps many children in Richmond,” Venuti said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to partner with others for a bigger cause. Putting together the talents and resources of people across the spectrum is what makes a good idea a really successful endeavor.”

Finding innovative ways to spread safety messages to students, staff and the university’s neighbors is something he’s always thinking about.

In 2013, the department unveiled a “win or lose cruiser” to deter people from driving under the influence of alcohol. The cruiser is parked around campus and lets passersby see just how much a DUI can cost ($10,000) as opposed to calling a cab after a night of drinking.

Venuti worked with Assistant Chief Chris Preuss to make the idea for the vehicle a reality; they took two common costs and compared them in a very visual way to make a bold statement.

“Urban policing has special challenges because VCU is in the middle of a thriving, busy city — unlike a campus that is self-contained. Every day we counter the misperception that we’re only here to arrest students — we’re not, and that could not be farther from the truth,” Venuti said. “If someone is here to do anything but learn, live or work, we’ll be keeping an eye out for them.”

One stat that makes him particularly proud is the percentage of people who feel safe at VCU. In 2012, the department collaborated with the VCU Survey Evaluation and Research Lab to create a perception of safety survey and has been issuing the survey twice a year ever since.

Venuti will be the first to tell you how many people feel “safe” or “very safe” on campus; the latest count is 96 percent.

He uses the survey’s quantitative and qualitative feedback to determine where to strategically conduct patrols, what areas may need additional lighting or security cameras and what people want to make them feel safer.

At the end of the day, he’s trying to create a fast and flexible policing model, one that’s responsive to VCU’s dynamic needs, but is adjustable for ever-changing circumstances.

VCU Police have partnered with LiveSafe to make their mobile app available to the VCU community for free. The app is available for iPhones or Android mobile devices.
VCU Police have partnered with LiveSafe to make their mobile app available to the VCU community for free. The app is available for iPhones or Android mobile devices.

As technology has evolved, so has the VCUPD’s ways of communicating. Venuti keeps up on how many people use the department’s LiveSafe app (more than 7,000) and how many followers the department has on its social media accounts (more than 9,800 combined).

LiveSafe gives users the ability to talk or text with a dispatcher and send in photos and videos to the department 24/7. Social media accounts are used to share safety tips, information on upcoming events and updates on the department.

“Communication with our students and staff is essential and we want people to contact us in a way that they feel comfortable with,” Venuti said. “That may be a call, a visit, a text message or sending us a photo of something that they feel is suspicious.”

All those stats and figures, totals and tallies help guide the chief’s next steps. Obviously not everyone can see the chief every day, but every student, faculty member, staff member and guest at VCU is receiving safety services driven by Venuti’s use of numbers.

For his brand of policing, numbers translate into action, action leads to feedback and feedback drives the chief’s next move.

“Each day I’m trying to move us closer to the goal line in terms of safety, community policing and keeping VCU a place in which everyone can thrive, no matter what they seek to achieve,” Venuti said.

He’s a numbers guy with an eye on how they fit together and how they set the tone each day.

“I am most proud of the growth and development that I have seen with staff within the police department,” Venuti said. “I’m trying to create a culture of innovation, forward thinking and problem-solving and to do this you have to push your people hard, and challenge them all day, every day.”


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