Alternative Response Approaches for Campus Safety 
April 30, 2024 


Hello and welcome to today’s webinar, Alternative Response Approaches for Campus Safety. All attendees are in listen-only mode. First, some housekeeping items. All questions, including any technical issues that you may experience, can be submitted by putting them in the question box at the bottom of your screen and clicking “Submit.” Webinar resources are available in the resources list on your screen. Please note that a transcript and recording of today’s webinar will be available in a few days on our website, And now here’s today’s moderator, Christine McHugh. 

Christine McHugh: 

Thanks Joanne. Hi everyone, I’m Christine McHugh, a risk researcher here at United Educators. We’re so pleased to bring you this webinar in partnership with the Healy+ Group, a professional services firm that specializes in organizational assessments for higher ed police and campus safety organizations. We’re also joined by law enforcement leaders from Virginia Commonwealth University, who will share a real-world example of a program they are implementing on campus. Let me start by introducing our speakers from the Healy+ Group. First, we have Dr. Diedrick Graham, Vice President of Culture and Strategy. Before Healy+, he was Ombudsperson for the University of Kansas, Princeton University, and San Diego State University. He was also Vice President and Global Integrity Leader at Nielsen in New York City, and Director of Human Resources at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Graham. 

Dr. Diedrick Graham: 

Thank you so much for having me, Christine. 


Of course. Next is Michael Rein, Director for Organizational Assessment Services. Before joining Healy+, Mike worked in the Rutgers University Department of Public Safety, retiring in 2022 as the Deputy Chief of University Police. Mike was a gubernatorial-appointed member of the New Jersey Statewide Public Safety Communications Commission, and the Mental Health and Special Needs Statewide Steering Committee. He has also served as the President of the New Jersey College and University Public Safety Association, and as an Executive Board Member of the New Jersey Public Safety Accreditation Coalition. Welcome, Mike. We’re glad to have you. 

Michael J. Rein: 

Pleasure to be here, Christine. 


John Venuti is Chief of Police and Associate Vice President for Public Safety for Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health. Chief Venuti oversees VCU’s Public Safety and Emergency Management. He has 40 years of law enforcement experience, including in the Richmond Police Department. Welcome Chief. Thank you for being here today. 


Great. Thank you so much for the invitation. 


Brian Sussman is the supervisor for VCU’s Safety Ambassador program. He studied criminal justice at the University of Central Florida and VCU, and [he] has served in the U.S. Army and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to his current position, he was a supervisor for the VCU Health System Security Department. Brian, thanks for joining us. 

Brian Sussman: 

Thank you so much for the invite. 


Here’s our agenda for the webinar. I’ll start by setting the stage, then Dr. Graham will take us through some Healy+ Group research on student opinions about campus safety. After that, Mike Rein will talk about some co-responder models, including the pros and cons of various options. Then Chief Venuti and Brian Sussman will share how they developed and implemented the Safety Ambassador Program at VCU. And finally, we’ll answer some of your questions. But first, a little background on how we got here. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, we saw many areas across the country begin re-examining their police practices. Colleges and universities joined those efforts to analyze how they keep their communities safe. And within higher ed, this re-examination often involved a closer look at the services that police provide on campus, and many schools found that police were responding to calls that could be handled by civilian professionals. 

So now colleges have started looking at how systems can be made more efficient and more effective by moving some services away from campus safety or police, instead shifting them to residence life or mental health practitioners or facilities staff. For some schools, the best fit is the co-responder model, with the specific resource person deploying right alongside the police or campus safety officer. And at other institutions, alternative response programs allow the civilian staff person to respond to specific situations all on their own. Now to figure out what will work best on any given campus, you have to start by looking at the community and its specific needs, and of course, students are at the core of that. So here I will turn it over to Dr. Graham to share the data about student opinions on public safety. 


Thank you, Christine. I really do appreciate this opportunity to talk about our work. Today, I’m excited to share insights from the Healy+ Group, and our recent initiative to understand college students and students’ perceptions on campus safety. This inquiry is crucial as we strive to ensure that college and university campuses feel safe for every community member. First, let’s discuss the methodology. At  Healy+ we believe in a comprehensive approach to gathering insights, so we utilize a blend of open forum, small group listening sessions, and limited surveys. Each method has a unique benefit and allows us to hear from as much [of] a cross section of the university community as possible. Next, why is this inquiry necessary right now? Being student ready is at the heart of our discussion today. Being ready, being student ready means more than just reacting to issues as they arise. It requires proactive engagement and a deep understanding of our students’ needs and expectations regarding campus safety. To be genuinely student ready, we must ensure that our policies, practices, and daily operations align closely with what our students are expecting and deserve regarding safety. 

As we move through today’s presentation, remember that this is more than about collecting data. It is about ensuring that every community member feels secure and valued. Let’s take a moment to look at the extensive efforts we undertook since 2020 to listen to our campus communities nationwide. First, we conducted hundreds of listening sessions and community engagement sessions. To be precise, these sessions spanned around 20 different colleges and universities. This wide-reaching effort was about quantity, quality, and depth of engagement. Each session was carefully designed for meaningful engagement, dialogue, and genuine exchange of ideas and concerns. In these sessions, we engaged with over 2,000 students. These weren’t just interactions, as I stated earlier; they were forums, small group discussions, surveys, and even virtual meetings via Zoom. This diverse methodology ensured that every student could be heard in a manner that was most accessible and comfortable for them. 

Importantly, our focus was on amplifying the voices of racial, cultural, and social identities. This includes students from BIPOC communities, LGBTQAI+ groups, Latino students, Jewish students, students with disabilities, and other affinity groups. We aim to capture a broad spectrum of experiences and perspectives to understand the very needs of our campus community, truly. One of the most striking findings, from the extensive discussions, is that more than 82% of the students we spoke with expressed concern about their safety. This is a significant percentage, and [it] underscores the urgency of addressing safety concerns comprehensively and inclusively. So, what does that tell us? It highlights a clear call to action. These aren’t just statistics. These are real concerns of students who need to feel safe and supported in their educational environments. Let’s keep these voices at the forefront of our strategies to enhance campus safety and security. 

This segment of our presentation will focus on the common recurring themes from our extensive listening sessions across campus communities. Each theme represents a critical area that affects the perception of campus safety, and outlines opportunities for meaningful improvement. Our first theme addresses a significant concern: The lack of communication and transparency within current safety protocols. Many students feel excluded from conversations that directly impact their well-being. This segment reflects a broader need for open lines of communication and more transparent information dissemination processes. This ensures everyone is informed and can voice their concerns. The second theme fosters better connections and repairing harm. There’s a clear call for a stronger relationship between campus safety personnel and the student body. 

Building trust is essential, not only in daily interaction, but also in how incidents are handled and resolved. Repairing harm starts with acknowledging past shortcomings and working collaboratively toward reconciliation and mutual respect. Our third theme emphasizes the lack of understanding of [the] roles and experiences associated with campus safety officers. The campus community and safety personnel would benefit from enhanced training and education. This includes clarity of roles of campus safety, and ensuring all parties understand what is expected in various situations, which promotes better cooperation and safety outcome[s]. The fourth theme, differential response, highlights the inconsistency in responses [based on the] campus location and the nature of the call. 

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work effectively in a diverse campus environment. Implementing differential response strategies ensures that responses are tailored to each situation’s specific context and needs, enhancing efficacy and appropriateness of safety measure[s]. The fifth theme refers to the university bubble, a sense of exceptionalism and a lack of understanding between the university and the broader community. This bubble can lead to misperceptions about safety and security, and a disconnect from the realities outside the campus borders. Bridging this gap is crucial for realistic and inclusive approaches to campus safety. And finally, the approach and appearance of campus safety officers [is] just as important as their dut[ies]. How officers are perceived and interact in campus spaces significantly affects their ability to serve and protect effectively. Moving towards a more community-oriented approach and appearance can help reduce the […] and build more supportive relationships between students and campus safety personnel. Each theme is a building block toward creating a safer, more inclusive, and understanding campus environment. Addressing these concerns will [support] the campus’ strategy for improving campus safety that respects and incorporates their campus’s communities’ diverse needs. 

On this slide, we delve into the crucial role of campus safety officers and explore strategic insights to enhance their integration [into] the campus community. Let’s examine three key aspects. One, acknowledging past tension. First, it’s essential to acknowledge the historical tension between campus police, other police forces, and our student body. Recognizing these issues is the first step in moving forward. Campus safety departments should be committed to a forward-looking approach, prioritizing healing and constructive engagement over confrontation. This is not just about making amends. It’s about setting a foundation for trust and cooperation that will underpin all future interaction[s]. Second, practical empathy. Let’s discuss practical empathy in this context. This concept involves understanding and sharing [an]other person’s feelings in an actionable and visible way. In our day-to-day operation, small changes in campus safety officers’ interactions with students can significantly improve this relationship. For instance, something [as] simple as an officer introducing themselves during patrols, or participating in regular non-enforcement activities on campus, can build rapport and trust. 

These actions help demystify the role of campus police, and show students that officers are approachable, concerned, and part of their community. Number three, extending engagement beyond enforcement. Campus safety departments should explore ways in which they can extend the role of the campus safety officers beyond mere enforcement. This involves fostering a culture that views safety officers, not as enforcers, but as guardians and servants of the community. Imagine campus safety officers who regularly attend community events, engage in dialogue with students and faculty and staff, and participate in educational workshops alongside campus community members. This shift toward a community-oriented approach can transform perceptions and encourage more collaborative and supportive relationships between students and campus safety personnel. By integrating these insights into campus safety strategy, we aim to cultivate a safer, more inclusive environment where all members feel understood, respected, and actively involved in shaping their security. The goal is clear. Ensure safety on campus. Ensuring safety on campus is not just about responding to students and to incidents, but also preventing them through community engagement, [and] mutual respect. 

Let us consider these themes as we discuss specific strategies and recommendations. Let’s focus on actionable recommendations to reshape campus safety protocols as we move forward. Communication, transparency, and relationship building. We see two crucial actions on the communication, transparency, and relationship building. One is open forums and improved information sharing. We must maintain a continuous dialogue with our campus community. This means informing everyone about safety updates through clear, effective communication channels. Open forums provide a platform where students, faculty, and staff can voice concerns, suggest improvements, and stay informed about measures to ensure their safety. Second, engagement and collaboration. The approach to campus safety must go beyond enforcement, and you’ve heard me say that earlier. We must establish and strengthen non-enforcement engagement programs, including workshops, seminars, and collective events. Collaborative in nature, these initiatives will foster stronger partnerships across the entire campus, promoting a sense of community and shared responsibility for safety. 

Enhancing our communication and building relationships is one of the parts of this equation. We must also focus on education and strategic responses to incidents. Turning to education and responses strategy: We recognize the need for cultural competence and community education. This involves mandatory ongoing training for campus safety personnel that focuses on cultural awareness, sensitivity, and [the] specific needs of diverse communities. Additionally, workshops for the campus community can empower everyone with knowledge and skills to participate actively in maintaining a safe community. Let’s discuss reimagining campus safety and visibility. The goal is to shift how everyone in the community perceives campus safety. We must move toward a supportive role rather than an authoritative or aggressive one. This involves even changing the uniform for our campus safety officers’ overall demeanor and presence. This reimagining aims to make our campus safety team more approachable, less intimidating, and [to] foster a safer and more inclusive atmosphere. Next, we consider the importance of adaptive leadership and anti-oppression training. 

We must embrace adaptive leadership styles that are flexible, responsive to change, and sensitive to the needs of diverse groups. Furthermore, anti-oppression training should be mandatory for all campus safety personnel. This training will equip them with the skills to recognize and combat bias, ensuring fair treatment of all individuals, regardless of their background.  

Moving on to a critical area of concern, sexual assault reporting. We need to implement victim-centered processes that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of survivors. These processes must include gender-sensitive options to ensure that all victims feel safe and supported when they come forward. This is not just about compliance. This is about creating an environment where survivors are heard and respected. 

Additionally, sustained dialogue and mindful shifts are essential. We must encourage ongoing dialogue that fosters a deep understanding of our student body’s diverse needs. This is about more than just occasional discussion. This is about continuous engagement that fundamentally changes how we think about and address safety. Lastly, a unified effort. This is where our leadership and campus safety teams commit to sustaining change through active listening and responsive action. We are dedicated to creating a safety model that champions safety, inclusion, and respect for all. The goal is to establish a campus safety model that is inclusive, effective, and respected by all community members. By achieving this, we ensure everyone on campus feels safe, respected, and part of a vibrant community. As we’ve discussed the importance of understanding and integrating student perspectives into our campus safety strategy, it is clear that innovative solutions are required to meet the ever-evolving needs of the community. With that in mind, I’d like to pass the baton to my colleague, Mike Rein. Mike will explore the evolution of co-responder models, and critical components in effectively leveraging the right resources to address our public and campus safety models and needs. 


Thank you, Dr. Graham. Co-responder models have a rich, 50-year-plus history of leveraging the right resources to address community or campus safety needs. The goal is to ensure that police officers are taken out of those situations which do not require them. Dating back to the early 1970s and 80s, where Critical Incident Training (CIT) programs paired police officers with mental health professionals in order to respond to crisis calls. In other words, the term co-response means different things in different places. Over time, we watched the evolution from CIT to de-escalation training, to co-responder, and now our current conversation of leveraging the appropriate or differential response to community-initiated calls for service. The most common co-response model pairs a trained campus safety officer with a mental health professional. This team responds to behavioral emergencies together, utilizing an interdisciplinary team approach. The specialized training enables a cooperative response in order to assess, triage, follow up with, and then refer the individual in crisis to the appropriate definitive care. 

This graphic from the National League of Cities, graphically depicts the co-responder model. Beginning on the left side, an individual in crisis contacts a crisis line, either 911 or 988. That call for service results in a Mobile Crisis team responding to their location. Ultimately, the mobile crisis team is able to facilitate transport to a crisis facility, where post-crisis wraparound support can be provided. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure individuals suffering from behavioral emergencies receive definitive care as dictated by the situation, and only individuals who’ve committed criminal acts end up in jail. As Dr. Graham discussed a few minutes ago, one of the goals toward developing an alternate response program is to ensure that the institution dispatches the appropriate resource to [a] civic call for service. In many instances, a police response may not be the initial response. In order to determine what response would be appropriate, it’s important for institutions to first analyze data from their dispatch or computer-aided dispatch system, typically maintained within their police communication center. 

These calls should be looked at within one of three categories. The first, law enforcement. Those are calls which require a police response. Typically, these calls involve serious crimes such as sexual assault, gender-based violence, burglaries, robberies, death investigations, or other low-level offenses, such as larcenies, vandalism, warrant service, vehicle collision investigations, and trespass complaints. The second bucket would include non-law enforcement calls per service. These […] typically include medical assists, situations which would involve a mental health emergency, well-being checks on members of the community, or other public assistance. For example, key service, lockouts, jump starts, escorts, noise complaints, or other non-criminal [acts], alarms, motorist assistance, etc. The last category of calls would include administrative tasks. For example, police report writing, attending training, vehicle maintenance, etc. These types of calls do not typically include a traditional response. After conducting this analysis, departments are best suited to determine which of the appropriate alternative response models would work in their community. 

Here we provide examples of alternate response models available across the spectrum. Once you determine the alternative response program which is best suited for your institution, it’s important to make sure that program is appropriately resourced and the alternative responders are fully vetted and trained. For example, community service officers or other non-sworn professionals can handle non-emergencies at your institution. Mental health or social workers can be available for psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse crises. Residential life or facility staff can support the campus safety ecosystem by unlocking or locking doors, or performing after-hours escort services and other assists to the public. 

Here we provide an overview of the seven most common co-response models. Regardless of which model is chosen, the goal is to pair a law enforcement officer with a mental health or substance abuse professional in order to ensure the right unit responds to the scene of the crisis. First, we see alternative response programs most common in the City of Cambridge’s Community Assistance Response and Engagement Team, the City of Eugene Oregon’s CAHOOTS model, Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, and the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Safety Ambassadors Program, of which you will hear momentarily. The second model is a police call for after-event support. In that model, officers responding will follow up with behavioral health specialists after they encounter someone in need. In the third model, police will obtain clinical support virtually, either via telehealth or some other agreement, where a phone call can be made from the scene of the incident in order to obtain online direction. 

The fourth model talks about a fire department or EMS partnership with clinicians. In this model, a traditional law enforcement response is replaced by the fire department or emergency medical services provider, who partners with clinicians to provide crisis response teams. An example we provide is in San Francisco. Moving along, multidisciplinary teams such as the Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team at Johns Hopkins University. Police call for non-clinical support can be provided by partnering with those outreach groups which deal with homelessness, or groups that can provide support services in the community, peer support workers who join with the police, and lastly, a model which involves clinical staff advising within the police dispatch center, wherein the dispatcher receives real-time support and direction from a clinician in that center. 


Thanks, Mike. As you noted, a really stellar example of an alternative response model is the program that’s currently in place at VCU. The Safety Ambassador Program, which is led by Chief John Venuti and Brian Sussman, who I introduced earlier, is now in its second year, and it’s already bringing real, quantifiable value to the university. I’ll pass it off to Chief Venuti to share a bit about VCU and how this program came to be. Chief? 


Thank you, Christine. Virginia Commonwealth University is located in Richmond, the capital of Virginia. VCU has one of the largest campus police forces in the nation with 95 sworn officers. VCU police share concurrent, expanded police jurisdiction with the City of Richmond Police Department. VCU’s two campuses are separated by one and a half miles, which cut directly through the heart of downtown Richmond. Our campuses have no borders or physical boundaries. Our campuses are wide open and a part of the city. I often say that VCU is truly a place where everyone belongs, literally. Like other urban institutions, we have the same issues as our peer institutions, including crime, gun violence, robberies, thefts, stolen vehicles, protests, and public assemblies, as well as all the issues associated with being a safety net lLevel I adult and pediatric trauma center that gets the majority of the trauma cases from the region. 

VCU police had begun the journey of police reform long before the murder of George Floyd. VCU created and executed a work plan constructed from the 21st century task force report that was released in 2015. This was a comprehensive strategy adopting many of the task force recommendations, focusing on building trust and legitimacy within our community. VCU had already reduced officer involved use of force by over 85% from 2010 to 2016. The foundation of our policing model rests on the concept of policing with a purpose. Everything that we do should matter. It should also have [a] measurable impact. This model has four pillars which are foundational to our success. First and foremost, partnerships and collaborations: This has by far aided our success more so than any of the other pillars. Second: Our use of technology [is] mainly as a force multiplier. The third pillar: Community input and feedback. It’s clear [that] we have to be listening to our communities. 

The fourth and final pillar: Weaving creativity and innovation into the public safety portfolio. After the murder of George Floyd, the president of VCU created the Safety and Well-being [Advisory Committee], based on my recommendation. You heard correctly, based on my recommendation. I knew this was the ideal time to look at, and potentially modify, public safety service delivery. After rebuilding the entire public safety portfolio, after arriving in 2010, I also […] realized where all of the opportunity existed. I worked hand in hand with this committee, and when they had an idea, more often than not, I told them we already did that, or we actually received a national award for that. I had already been tracking what was evolving nationally with police reform. I actually suggested some level of alternative response to the committee. I did this as I explained to the committee all of the responsibilities the police department takes on in an academic law enforcement environment, much of which does not require a sworn armed police officer. 

I also relayed to the committee that sworn staffing levels and retention were an issue that impacted service delivery. As the committee continued their work, I began reverse engineering what this role could be like at VCU. VCU is a resource-rich environment with mental health resources. And proceeding traditionally, now we would have a clinician riding around with the police. We created something different that would better meet the needs of the community as well as the police department. The Safety Ambassador Program was created to take on many tasks that the police were doing that did not need to be done by sworn officers. As we developed this program, we knew that they could not look like police or security at all, and [that] this group needed to be the unicorns of the public safety portfolio. The Safety Ambassador Program was launched and rolled out at VCU in Jan. 2023. 

The safety ambassadors handle a multitude of assignments: They respond to wellness checks, assist with traffic control [and] fire alarms, as well as the evacuation of buildings. They also handle found property calls as well as citizen assistance. One example is assisting patients and visitors who cannot recall where they parked their vehicles on one of our many parking decks. Another important role is providing transport for staff. A local public elementary school had no resources this year to staff a crossing guard position at a very busy crosswalk. The school requests that assistance. The safety ambassadors have handled this assignment in the mornings and the afternoon all year long. I think this is a great example of a very important aspect of the program, community-at-large involvement and support. Again, this has nothing to do with the operations of VCU, but how do you say no to a request like that? 

The safety ambassadors know all of the kids by name, and they love handling this assignment. Many of these tasks formerly were handled by the police. Now, with this new deployable asset, sworn officers can focus their efforts on making VCU a safer place. As part of this innovation, we created a lower level of this full-time position. VCU police had no existing opportunities to hire student workers. We created the Student Safety Ambassador as a subordinate function of the safety ambassador role. This was a great way to get students who had an interest in public safety in the door and to create a career path into the VCU Police Department, ultimately, as a sworn officer. The student safety ambassadors handle some of the same tasks, with the addition of checking panic buttons, Emergency Reporting Telephone System  (ERTS) phone testing, as well as high-visibility patrols of spaces where students are, for example, places like the library, the commons, and the dining hall. 

They also assist police with special events like basketball games, graduations, and student move-ins. I’ve had two safety ambassadors, who were students, migrate to the VCU Police Academy to be VCU police officers. After creating and posting the job description, we were searching for people who did not have heavy police or security backgrounds. We were looking for people who had social work and undergraduate degrees, in addition to people who had experience in dealing with mental health issues. We were looking for unicorns. After failing, we modified our approach to find good, caring, compassionate people who would treat others with dignity and respect. Once we found them, we would train them with the missing strategic skills like crisis intervention training, mental health first aid, as well as other relevant skills. With the creation of the Safety Ambassador Unit, we also focused on departmental priorities, and how we could use this unit to maximize the effectiveness of several department goals and objectives. 

VCU police use the safety ambassadors as an extension of the Crime Prevention Unit. These responsibilities include educational opportunities with students and staff. It also includes outreach and engagement opportunities with students and staff, as well as being a deployable asset to focus on additional initiatives which are a priority, such as pedestrian and traffic safety. The safety ambassadors are obviously tethered to the public safety portfolio and have radio contact with police, but they’re not viewed as being directly associated with the police department or identified as security officers. The safety ambassadors are requested quite frequently for things like LGBTQ and transgender event programming, because historically, like many marginalized groups, there is a legitimate fear of law enforcement. They’re also used to staff other assignments that arise, some of which are on very short notice, where other staffing is simply just not available. 

What really makes this role different from [the] police is that we legitimately wanted to create a community-focused resource, that was more accessible, to meet the needs of our students and community. Maybe the main takeaway from the Safety Ambassador Program is that if you were to look at a model that best fits the creation of the Safety Ambassador Program, I would say it would be the design thinking model. The three main components of this model are explore, materialize, and understand. This allowed us to innovate, grow, and evolve this program. VCU did this without the fear of failure because we were not just checking boxes and jumping through hoops, we were legitimately trying to better meet the needs of our students and community at VCU. When initiatives are approached from this angle, failure is rarely an option. Now we’ll hear from VCU Safety Ambassador Supervisor, Brian Sussman. 


Thank you, Chief. Now, creating the safety ambassador team from the ground up was no easy task. I think it’s safe to say the most important part of the process is to ensure we are capturing the right people with the right backgrounds for this position. That process starts with [a] job description clarifying what exactly we are looking for. In the beginning, we were looking to fill four full-time positions. We thought it would be very important to fill these positions with empathetic and understanding individuals, who truly care about the people that they were getting ready to serve. In doing so, we were looking for individuals with very diverse backgrounds. We wanted a team that matched the diversity of the university, to include the four mentioned traits, and [who would] have the ability to relate to a university setting. That said, we set our sights on individuals with coursework in sociology, counseling, social work, nursing, and criminal justice. One thing that has been very valuable to this team is the knowledge of the environment. 

Everyone who is currently on the team has either worked for another department at VCU, worked in the hospital system, myself included, or even graduated from VCU. You can’t imagine how important that step is when creating your team. It’s almost as if you hit the ground running from the start. Once we had assembled the right people for the team, it was our responsibility to give them a civilian training program. In doing so, we had to ensure that the training was indicative of the calls that they would be responding to. One of the first steps was, we sat down with our emergency communication center manager, along with VCU PD leadership, and discussed what calls we could respond to, and which ones obviously would remain with patrol. We created a template of calls for service, and from there we were able to better understand what training the safety ambassadors would need. What came of that was about 188 hours of training that was conducted by the VCU Police Department Training Division. And please note, by design, there is no weapons training, as the safety ambassadors are completely unarmed. 

An example of the training that the safety ambassadors went through is recovered property calls. Our team responds to these calls to recover any and all property, ranging from lost IDs, credit cards, laptops, wallets, or backpacks, to name a few. The found property is then logged into the VCU PD property room, just as a police officer would have logged it in. Another very important training obviously would be radio training, and the entire team did get through that as well. It’s important for the safety ambassadors to understand the use of Department 10 codes, clearing codes, as well as the phonetic alphabet when speaking on the radio. We clear calls, we respond to calls via the radio, just as a police officer would. CPR and First Aid was an obvious choice as it is a training that none of us ever want to have to use, but there will be times that the safety ambassador will be the first person responding to a call that may require either CPR or basic first aid knowledge. 

As the team began to take on special assignments in the VCU footprint, it was apparent that directing traffic was a role this team could be trained in. Traffic direction training allowed us to work events that would have been occupied by a sworn officer. This allows that sworn officer to be at the ready to respond to calls for service where a sworn police officer is required. For example, the Safety Ambassador team has taken over two positions in the parking deck during the VCU Men’s home basketball season. The team also has been built into the VCU commencement operations based on this training. This, again, frees up sworn officers to focus on the event or respond to calls where they’re absolutely needed. Body worn cameras was another training that they went through as they responded to various calls for service. We built it into the policy that they must engage the BWC for the duration of each call. The activation of the BWC is non-negotiable and must be engaged for every call for service. 

The team has access to the software so they can update their own videos and ensure that they’re labeled correctly. Lastly, the team was trained in CIT or crisis intervention training. This training was huge and necessary training for the safety ambassadors, as CIT is normally reserved for sworn officers or Emergency and Critical Care (ECC) personnel. This training gave the team real-world scenario training on how to immediately de-escalate situations. This training has come in handy when the team takes calls for service in the resident halls. When responding to calls in the resident halls, such as a mental health check, a status check, or a welfare check, a sworn officer will always respond to each call with a safety ambassador. How the individual in need responds to the safety ambassador determines whether the sworn officer is still needed. Again, please note, the safety ambassador will take the call as the primary and the sworn officer will remain out of sight as to not to further escalate the person in crisis. 

What I also think is important to mention is that the training program we created and the protocols in place suit our environment. We’re an institution of higher learning in a very urban environment that is married to Richmond, Virginia. What your safety ambassadors respond to may look different on your campus. You can tailor the training program to include your cadre of calls and to fit your various needs. The Safety Ambassador team is very effective at de-escalating situations or calls before they become something they shouldn’t. They’re able to de-escalate due to a few factors. First, the CIT training they receive during their basic training gives them a strong foundation or set. Secondly, the uniforms are a high visibility yellow color. This color was picked by design as the ambassador can be picked out of a crowd while on foot patrol, especially at a distance. This uniform has become a beacon of safety on the campus, largely because the safety ambassador, again, is unarmed. I feel these factors eliminate most threats a person may feel when engaging with a safety ambassador. 

Engaging the community or the student body is very important to be an effective safety ambassador. Whether it is assisting [the] community policing department, or assisting a citizen finding their lost vehicle or even running events, which we did today at a student commons, the team works very hard at resetting the current standard of trust when assisting the community. As we all know, all calls for service are very important. However, here at VCU, one of the most important calls for service is our Virginia Treatment Center for Children (VTCC) transport calls. This is a call type that has us transport children from the pediatric emergency rooms to the VTCC. These children are provided [with] short-term crisis stabilization and around-the-clock mental health. Traditionally, this call for service was once handled by a uniformed sworn officer, and involved a marked police vehicle. This path had the potential to increase escalation of that patient. By the end of Mar. 2023, VCU PD sworn officers had handled 74% of all VTCC calls for service. 

The Safety Ambassador team at this point had only been taking calls for service for just over two months. In the same time this year, the Safety Ambassador team had almost completely flipped that percentage by responding to 70% of all VTCC calls for service this year. That number roughly equates to 72 VTCC transports. By responding to these calls for service, it shows us two things. One is [that] the team is immediately able to de-escalate the child, if need be, as there are no police cars used in the transport, nor are there any weapons involved, as again, the ambassador is unarmed. Two, there is about an hour’s time given back to the officer to be available for other calls, as it can take about an hour to properly handle this call from start to finish. To put that into perspective, that is about 72 hours of time given back to patrol to take calls and be visible. 

The team completed training in mid-January of 2023, and began responding to calls for service. I think it is safe to say that their impact was felt by the sworn officers as well as the VCU community. As the year progressed, the calls for service, or what they were allowed to respond to, increased. In turn, the team took over more calls for service that did not require a sworn response. In one year’s time, the team of four civilian employees has changed how we at VCPD respond to our unique community. The team has made an immediate impact [on] the students, faculty, staff, and visitors of VCU, and especially to the sworn officer. They’ve done this by responding to over 6% of all calls for service that came into VCPD in 2023. That equates to about 6,000 calls that a sworn officer did not have to respond to or handle. 

What that also means is that these were calls that we put ourselves into, foot patrols, high visibilities, and also calls that came from our communication center. The Safety Ambassador team has also continued to assist with overtime and special assignments, allowing officers to be off on time and not to be overworked. Currently, this team has responded to 462 calls for service. With the addition of a new full-time safety ambassador, this team will be able to be in more places and to take on more calls for service, and engage the community at a greater rate. This team will continue to expand and take on added responsibility to include even more calls for service. Within the next year, we will see this team becoming more ingrained with patrol, with the goal of better assisting the sworn officer and our community. As this team responds to calls with empathy and understanding, there is no limit to their success. 


Thanks, Brian. Your team’s impact really is remarkable, and to think that this all happened in the first year of the program is really amazing to me. I’m sure the value to the university is just going to multiply as the years continue, so congrats to you and your team. Let’s turn now to some Q&As. We don’t have much time left, but I want to squeeze a few of these in. OK. The first one here, I’ll direct to Chief Venuti. “What do you recommend for police departments where officers are opposed to alternative models?” I know you and I have talked about how intentional you’ve been about really integrating the Safety Ambassador program into your police department, so maybe you can speak to that a little bit. 


Well, great. Thank you, Christine. I think this is a really, really easy question. Since the summer of 2020, the demand for law enforcement and public safety services has really dramatically increased. Since the summer of 2020, staffing challenges for both sworn police officers as well as security officers has really been challenging, and many police departments are dealing, on a daily basis, with this increased demand for services and this decrease in staffing to meet those needs. What we did here at VCU is we really did a top-down approach with this program and initiative. We looked for total and complete department alignment, and we really communicated clearly with all of our staff that this new deployable asset was really designed to take work off their plate, so that our sworn officers can do the work that needs to be done by sworn officers, taking away some of these other tasks that could be done and completed by other resources that we have. 

I think that with the staffing challenges that we’re seeing, for the future of law enforcement, some level of alternative model is really the key to meeting the public safety demands. I know that when we survey our staff here at VCU, our sworn officers, over 90% have positive feedback on the presence of the safety ambassadors as well as the student safety ambassadors and the work that they have taken from the sworn officers so that they could focus on other tasks. 


Wow, that’s really excellent. It sounds like your efforts are really paying off. “What do you recommend for schools starting their own program”" And Brian, maybe you could start off on this one and then Dr. Graham can add in whatever he’s seen from the research. 


Sure. The one thing that stood [out] to me is how are we going to capture what they’re doing and maintain really stoic records? I have a very rudimentary background in crime analysis from the University of Central Florida, so I employed that skill set and created Call Trackers. So, what I did initially was I took calls from ECC, and I took calls that were initiated, meaning any time my ambassadors got on the radio and put themselves into a call or into an action, such as a foot patrol or high visibility, or a parking deck check, those were recorded. Again, calls from ECC, which are extremely important, those were recorded as well. And as the team grew, we were able to make more sense of what to record. 

But I think the biggest takeaway and why to create these trackers at the very, very start of what you do, is because you can actually see where they’re needed and where they’re not. You can sit here and create a cadre of calls and think, this is perfect, this is great, but in reality, track those calls and see where they’re going, see what they’re doing. Maybe they’re spending too much time over in one area and not enough in the other. So, I think that’s a huge takeaway. That would be my initial advice, is to create data trackers and call trackers and that they inherently keep. So, each one is responsible for their own tracking of their calls. Also, take time to foster the program. We have a low turnover rate of safety ambassadors because they know that we are invested in them. 

One thing I believe in is, I put their successes over my own. And I think that’s very important for them to see that, because what that does is gives them a [sense] of team ownership, and we are hearing their voices because the changes we make on a daily basis, whether it’s maybe doing this call differently, because they’re the ones who are doing it, they’re the ones who are seeing it, and they’re letting me know, “Hey, we should do it differently this way.” I run it up the chain, it always gets approved, and we’re doing this call differently. And so, they need to know that they’re being heard and they’re the ones that are creating the team. It’s not, “I need you to do this,” it’s “What can I do for you?” And I truly believe in that model as a leader, as a supervisor. I want them to know that I work for them, I’m here for you, and because of that, I think they’re more ingrained to buy into this program because it’s theirs, it’s their program. 


Absolutely. It sounds like you really have created a culture of flexibility and a desire to learn and grow the program and improve, and it’s really evident in all that you all have done. Dr. Graham, are there any other things that you have seen in the research that are top issues the school should be thinking about as they build the program? 


Yeah, Christine. I think probably based on what we’ve seen is there are four things that I would put at the top of the list. One is program goals, right? Clearly define what the program aims to achieve. And you can see these in the VCU program. Consider what specific needs are being addressed, such as reducing the burden on traditional security forces or providing specialized responses to mental health issues. Secondly, stakeholder engagement. Engage with all relevant stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, safety staff, local law enforcement, to gather input and foster collaboration. Third, training and resources, and we know that this is where a lot of organizations struggle. Ensure that all team members receive appropriate training, especially in the areas such as de-escalation, crisis intervention, specific scenarios that they may face around implicit bias. Adequate resources should also be allocated to support the team’s operations effectively. And finally, community integration. How do we develop strategies for the program that will be well integrated into the school’s or the campus’s community? This could include public information sessions, involvement in community events, and regular feedback mechanisms that adjust the programs as needed. 


Those are all really important. Thank you both so much. Well, we’re cutting it close on time so we won’t be able to get into any other questions today. But before we wrap up, I’d like to extend a big thank you to all four of our presenters. You’ve all provided fantastic insight today, and we really appreciate all the time you put into the preparation. I’d also like to extend a special thanks to Steven Healy, the CEO of  Healy+. He’s the one who brought this group together, and we’re really grateful for that. We’ve included everyone’s emails here, so please feel free to reach out to collaborate, or with any follow-up questions. 

Before we go, I’d like to take a moment to remind our members about risk advice. That’s the service that UE offers, where you can send any risk management question to the email address, and one of our consultants will answer. They’ve seen every question under the sun and they’d love to help you with yours. If you have any questions that we didn’t get to today, please also send those to the same email address,, and we will get you a reply. And finally, please don’t forget to check the resources we’ve included in this portal, and look for a recording of this webinar on our website in the days ahead. Thanks for listening. 


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