By Debbie Adams
Law enforcement agencies have been in the spotlight in recent months as protests and demonstrations have spread across the nation. That unrest has not been the case in Vinton where the Vinton Police Department continues to be held in high regard by its citizens, not just because Vinton is a small, tight-knit community, but because of the department’s adherence to the philosophy and policy of community policing.
“I think what makes the Vinton Police Department’s relationship with the community special is our commitment to service,” said Vinton Chief of Police Thomas Foster. “I want every officer of this department to approach their duties with a ‘servant’s heart.’ I read a quote from a Chick-fil-A server who defined this approach as ‘being helpful to a person no matter their circumstances and situation, and having the compassion and desire to want to help them from the start.’”
The Mission Statement of the Vinton Police Department reads: “The mission of the Vinton Police Department is to deliver quality police services to the community while placing honesty, integrity, and professionalism above all else. We serve the community by enforcing laws and ordinances, safeguarding life and property, preventing and detecting crime, preserving the peace, being involved in community partnerships, and protecting the rights of all citizens.”
“When we hire an officer to join the Vinton Police Department team, one of the final meetings involves a discussion with me and Deputy Chief Fabricio Drumond about the policing philosophy of our department,” Foster said. “I tell each of them, ‘We deliver a level of service like no other.’ We then discuss how we operationalize the ‘servant’s heart’ mentality through a series of real-life examples.
“The first involves a single mom to a little girl whose cat died on a very cold December evening. The daughter was very upset and wanted to have a funeral for her beloved cat. The mom tried to dig a hole in the backyard to bury the cat, but couldn’t because the ground was frozen. Not knowing what else to do, she called the police– the Vinton Police. Our officers responded and dug the hole for them so they could say goodbye to their pet.
“The second story involves an elderly woman who had broken her ankle and was unable to get her groceries into her home. Not knowing who else she could call she called the police–the Vinton Police. Our officers responded and carried in her groceries and put them away for her.
“I then tell other stories of where our officers bought bicycles for children who had their bicycle stolen or purchased food items for a man who they had just arrested for shoplifting of the same items.”
“We enforce the law, but we do it with a ‘servant’s heart,’” said Foster. “We end the meeting with ‘If this type of policing is appealing to you, we have a place for you at the Vinton Police Department.’”
The Vinton Police Department recently changed the graphics on their patrol cars, adding a phrase to the rear bumper of each car. The phrase reads, “Driven To Make A Difference.”
“Why that phrase? Because it seems that nearly every officer I have met in my 34-plus year career tells me that is why he or she wanted to be a police officer, ‘To make a difference,’” said Foster. “But I didn’t put it on the cars with the public being the intended primary reader of the message. I put it there to be a constant reminder to the officer of why they chose to wear the badge of a police officer.
“The bottom line is there is no ‘us versus them’ mentality at the Vinton Police Department,” Foster said. “We are about building relationships with our community, and we are about service to others.
“Each candidate for the position of police officer is interviewed and tested by a licensed clinical psychologist for fitness for duty,” Foster said. “This process takes place during the background investigation phase. If the candidate passes a very extensive background investigation, and psychological testing and evaluation, the final step is physical exam by a medical doctor. After completing all those processes the candidate is offered employment.”
Foster explains that each Vinton Police officer, in addition to traditional law enforcement courses, receives training in:
- Fair and Impartial Policing
- Crisis Intervention
- Cultural Diversity
- Patrol Level Community Policing
- The Role of Law Enforcement in the Community
- Law Enforcement Professionalism
- Mental Health First Aid
- Use of Force Policy
- Stress Management for Law Enforcement
- Arrestee Restraint and Positional Asphyxia
“We at the Vinton Police Department are truly blessed to serve such an amazing and supportive community,” Foster added. “Even with all that is going on in the world, we continue to receive messages of support for our officers. We have had food delivered, cards sent to us, and even balloons that say ‘thank you’ from the citizens we serve. A recent card read, ‘To our police officers and staff. Our family is grateful for you and your families. Be strong. Be courageous. We support you and are praying for you.’ It makes a difference knowing we are supported and prayed for daily.”
Examples of the Vinton Police Department’s involvement in the community are extensive and impressive. In 2019, in addition to answering 14,232 calls for service:
- The Vinton Police sponsored the annual National Night Out event in which town staff and the community at-large are invited to join members of the police department for food, music, games, and fellowship.
- The department was awarded the Byrne Justice Assistance Youth Engagement Grant to promote child and youth safety through “Operation McGruff and Scruff,” visiting schools and working with children at community events with educational programs on staying safe. McGruff even showed up at Herman L. Horn Elementary to help hand out drive-through meals when schools were closed due to COVID-19.
- The Vinton Police took their Mobile Community Services Unit to Bonsack Elementary School’s 20th anniversary celebration for a cookout. They also take the Mobile Unit to multi-family complexes for community engagement.
- The local police served Thanksgiving dinner to senior adults at Clearview Manor.
- They sent Santa and his elves to Herman L. Horn and W. E. Cundiff Elementary Schools to celebrate Christmas. They are often seen with their vehicles at special school events such as the HLH Fun Run. They visit classrooms to read to students. They have welcomed students to the Municipal Building to visit the Police department. Community Resources Officer Sgt. Michael Caldwell works with teams of students at WEC and HLH who raise and lower the flags each day in normal times.
- The Vinton Police are a visible presence at the Dogwood Festival, Fall Festival/Oktoberfest, Mingle at the Market Concerts, other Market special events, Downtown Trick or Treat, the Christmas Parade, the Fourth of July Celebration, the Senior Expo, Town Council meetings, and the Gladetown/Carline/Midway biennial reunion. They sponsor Patriot Day each year in remembrance of 9/11.
- This spring they escorted the Class of 2020 Senior Parade from Rosie’s through the streets of Vinton to the high school for the drive-through diploma ceremony for the graduates.
- They also led various school parades through the neighborhoods of Vinton for teachers to greet their students during the pandemic.
- They help the GFWC Vinton Woman’s Club plant a pinwheel garden at the Municipal Building each spring in recognition of Child Abuse Prevention Month.
- The Vinton Police sponsor the Citizen’s Police Academy for citizens to learn how the department works.
- They have assisted Vinton churches with developing their security programs.
“Community Policing, is a true interactive process that allows Police officers to be talked to, be touched and interact with citizens,” said Councilman Mike Stovall, a former Vinton police officer. “There have been bad pictures painted of police officers for decades! Community Policing is a must for communities; it allows police officers to get to know the community and then if they have to interact with them in their official capacity it is a whole lot easier on the officer if he or she knows the person they are interacting with.”
Councilwoman Janet Scheid recently became concerned about the growing unrest across the country and asked to talk with Chief Foster and Captain Drumond about the local police department and law enforcement policy in general.
The day she was scheduled to meet with them, the town received information about a protest march rumored to start at Food Lion and proceed to the Municipal Building downtown. She asked the two what their approach would be to the march.
“Chief Foster replied, ‘Public safety.’ He said ‘protesters have every right to march,’ and that the department would order a patrol car in front of and behind the march to maintain public safety. They were not going to armor up and escalate the situation, which would be the worst thing to do. His intention was to ‘make sure everyone is safe and the rest of the traveling public is safe. Our job is to “protect and serve.’ The demonstration did not materialize.”
In discussing policing in general, Captain Drumond, a strong advocate for community policing, said, “You can’t buy trust; you can’t legislate trust; you can’t pass policies to force trust; you must earn trust and the good will of the public and community.”
“The Town of Vinton has done a good job of this,” said Scheid. “It’s the little things– people in the community talk about the little things– buying a bike for a child who’s bike was stolen, helping an elderly woman get her groceries in– the community becomes aware of small acts of kindness; word gets out.”
Scheid said Foster and Drumond truly believe their policy can translate to larger communities. “It’s more of an attitude– the policy of serving, of being guardians of the community, not warriors.”
They also emphasized to her the high moral expectations they have when hiring officers. “They expect officers to first and foremost treat everyone they deal with as a human being— despite ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. They expect officers to have high moral and ethical standards— personally and professionally, and they have developed tactics for getting the right people and providing them the right training.”