Thursday, December 21, 2006
Tech police chief studying up on his job
Wendell Flinchum has worked with the Virginia Tech Police Department for 21 years.
Gene Dalton | The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum grew up in the New River Valley and has spent his law enforcement career at the university.
BLACKSBURG -- Five days a week, Wendell Flinchum is working to keep the students at Virginia Tech safe.
But for four hours one night a week, he becomes the student.
Flinchum, 44, who earlier this month was named chief of the Tech police department, is working toward a bachelor's degree in organizational management and leadership through Bluefield College.
He joined the police department during his third year as a Tech student in 1983, but dropped out of school -- a decision he now calls "stupid."
In February, he began taking classes at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, working toward the degree required for the chief's job.
"I found it to be easier" than the first time he was in college, Flinchum said. "I wanted to be there."
Flinchum may not graduate until May, but he's well qualified to lead the police department he's been a part of for 21 years, his supporters said.
He has completed Professional Executive Leadership School at the University of Richmond and the Commonwealth Management Institute. Last fall, he graduated from the FBI National Academy, an intensive, 10-week program aimed at developing leadership skills.
"To get into the National Academy is a highly competitive process," said Debra Duncan, Tech's former chief. Flinchum has acted as interim chief since Duncan left the department in July to take a job as chief of a department in Monroe, N.C.
Flinchum's graduation from the academy "was a feather in the university's cap as well as Wendell's," Duncan said.
Flinchum is the only current member of the Tech police department to graduate from the academy and one of only a handful of graduates in the New River Valley.
Flinchum, who grew up in Blacksburg and Christiansburg and graduated from Christiansburg High School, has spent his entire career at Tech.
He's worked as a safety escort, a dispatcher, a patrol officer and a detective. In 1994, he joined the Montgomery County Drug Task Force, which later became the New River Regional Drug Task Force. He spent five years on the force.
"I loved it," Flinchum said. "It was probably the best training experience and law enforcement experience I've ever had."
Instead of waiting for a call that something has happened, on the task force you make things happen, Flinchum said.
"You learn all aspects of case management and investigation," including exactly what a prosecutor needs to have a strong case against a drug dealer, he said.
Lt. Vince Houston, who has served with the Tech department for 19 years, said that he, too, has benefited from Flinchum's task force experience.
As investigators, the pair worked together on several cases.
"I learned a lot because Wendell brought so much knowledge back with him from working with the drug task force," Houston said.
Houston said that Flinchum makes a good leader. Ask Flinchum a question, he said, and you'll get an answer.
"His decisionmaking skills are unbelievable," Houston said. "Even in a rushed situation, you know he's always thinking the next step, the next step."
Duncan and former Blacksburg police chief Bill Brown agreed, calling Flinchum level-headed, dependable and even-tempered.
"I think he proved his calmness and his leadership during the Morva incident," Brown said.
In August, Montgomery County Jail inmate William Morva escaped police custody, prompting a manhunt that shut down Virginia Tech on the first day of classes. Morva is accused of killing two people during his escape.
Even when it was rumored that Morva had been spotted in Squires Student Center, Flinchum "never got excited," Brown said. "When he said something over the police radio, he was calm and what he said was well thought out."
"That's one of his strong points," Duncan agreed.
While she was chief, Duncan said, Flinchum was one she could always count on.
"Wendell was my go-to guy. If I needed something done, I could go to him and it would get done," she said. "He was the man behind the woman."
Duncan said she was happy -- and not surprised -- to hear that Flinchum was chosen to replace her.
"He's got the ability to lead the department," she said. "I'm very proud of him and his accomplishments. He's really worked hard to achieve this."
Flinchum downplays his work, saying he's been fortunate to have had so many opportunities.
"He is very humble," Houston said.
"A lot of times, people like that kind of go into the background and don't get the recognition they've earned," Duncan said. She said she's glad the university recognized Flinchum's accomplishments.
Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said that after winnowing down a list of 93 applicants for the chief's job, "the choice was clear."
Brown said that some officers let the power of being an officer go to their heads, but not Flinchum.
"Wendell is Wendell," he said.
Flinchum may be known for his quiet nature and strong work ethic, but Houston said there's another side to him.
Sometimes, Flinchum can be seen cruising around town on a Harley-Davidson or playing subtle jokes on unsuspecting victims.
"Most people don't realize he's got an unbelievable sense of humor," Houston said. "He's just a great guy."