BLACKSBURG — Todd Brewster is about to take charge of the department where he worked for his entire law enforcement career so far. On July 1, he’ll become Blacksburg’s police chief, stepping up as Anthony Wilson retires.
Brewster, a Tazewell native and Radford University graduate, started at the police department 25 years ago. He was hired as a dispatcher and worked his way up until he is now police services captain. It’s a position with wide-ranging duties in a department that has had no deputy chief.
As captain, Brewster supervises criminal investigations, accreditation and community outreach. He also has charge of an area that he describes as a bedrock of good policing: recruiting and training.
“Law enforcement is a calling. It’s not just a job,” Brewster said recently. “… When we hire people, we expect that.”
The law enforcement calling is the first leg of the Blacksburg department’s Training Triangle, a framework that Brewster returns to frequently in talking about policing.
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“Our job here in Blacksburg is to protect the community – and educate people” about laws they might not realize they are breaking, Brewster said.
“We have a lot of students that move into neighborhoods and they don’t know. So we’ll get a call from a neighbor, ‘hey, their music’s too loud.’ And we’ll go and the officer will say, ‘hey, look, you’re in a neighborhood, you can’t be having a large party.’ And they’re like, ‘we didn’t know that, thank you.’”
As chief, Brewster will be immediately in charge of the department’s move to a new, bigger police station with expanded training facilities. He will oversee an already-in-progress change to the department’s organizational chart, adding a deputy chief, the second-in-command position that is a usual part of forces even smaller than Blacksburg’s.
And he’ll steer a course through the many issues of policing that have shaken the country, from relations between law enforcement and minority communities to gun violence.
With his new role looming, Brewster took an hour to discuss some of what he sees ahead.
There has been a decade of increasing attention to policing practices, especially with regard to minorities and accountability. Do you think that law enforcement is better off for the ongoing discussion?TB: We work for the community. … If we need to re-evaluate what society says then we re-evaluate and go with that. Because ultimately we work for the people. …
We’re human too and we’re going to make mistakes but we also need … to re-evaluate like with anything else. … As times have changed, we need to as police and as society re-evaluate how we do things. …
Over the past 10 years, in general, with the way laws have changed, it’s a good thing … It makes us as law enforcement meet the needs of society.
We teach, on our Training Triangle, why you do it and why you do the things you do … and the next piece is learning how to communicate with the public … 99 percent of the things we do out here is communicating. And so if we can communicate – we want our officers to de-escalate the situation. We’d much rather have somebody talk somebody down … I don’t want our officers to have to fight somebody. …
The third part is … if somebody is going to physically resist our officers or take a swing at our officers, we want [the officers] to be very proficient in how they do things and not hurt the person. That portion of it is teaching defensive tactics … how to do an arm bar or how to take somebody into custody without injuring them if at all possible. … hopefully our weapons stay on the gunbelt.
How does the national discussion play out with the Blacksburg Police Department? It was interesting to see the difference two years ago in the marches and rallies that took place locally – in Roanoke, there was a stand-off in front of the police station with officers firing pepper spray, while in Montgomery County there was conversation with Black Lives Matter, and the county’s three police chiefs and Sheriff Hank Partin standing up front at a rally and speaking.
TB: No matter what happens, where it happens, it affects law enforcement across the country. Something can happen in Seattle or LA or San Diego or Miami, Florida, we’re going to feel the effects of whatever it is. With our department, we’ve built a rapport with our community that we are part of the community. We still see the effects, we still feel the effects but we still have the support of our community …
It’s your First Amendment right [to protest]. … A couple years ago, we were blocking the streets off so that we knew no car could get down and try to possibly get toward the protesters. We were blocking the streets to make sure everybody was safe … They could protest everything they wanted and at the end of the day, everybody went home safe, nothing got torn up, nobody got assaulted. … We were actually handing out water because it was baking hot.
Is policing a university town different than any other place? What special factors does a police officer in Blacksburg need to consider?
TB: It is completely different. It is a different dynamic because we’re dealing with mostly college students. You’ve got to know how to talk to college students and be used to their culture. College student culture is a lot different than everybody else’s. … It’s fun to be in this town, it’s fun to be a police officer in this town. … You can go downtown at night, especially during football season, and you’ll see officers standing downtown and you’ll see groups of college students coming up and talking to them.
That is community policing. That is them being able to talk to the students and the students feel safe knowing that if something were to happen, our officers are there.
As you become chief, what will be your top concern?
TB: The top concern is with what’s going on today in our country. And when I say that, it is the way society has become – everybody’s carrying a gun now. You see the news day in and day out of a shooting at a church or … at a cook-out. That is concerning to us … and that should be a concern for society generally.
And making sure we keep all our community members and anybody that’s here visiting, we’ve got to make sure they’re safe, first and foremost. … We need to make sure everybody stays safe and that the community knows we’re here for them.
What is one other thing you want Blacksburg residents to know about your plans or about the department generally?
TB: I want to build upon what Chief Wilson has accomplished and they are huge accomplishments … I want to continue our community relations, working with our community and building that up. And continue to recruit and keep our officers here in Blacksburg. The best feeling that you can have is keeping somebody that’s local in this area, that grew up here, because they have a lot of contacts here and they understand the community and they understand things and how it works here as a whole.
To our citizens in Blacksburg, all they have to do is call us and we’re coming, no matter what the situation is.