BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s new police chief is a familiar face among the region’s law enforcement ranks, with a three-decade career in Roanoke and Blacksburg.
“I had lived in the shadow of Virginia Tech nearly all of my life,” William “Mac” Babb III said Friday, recalling what he told university officials during his job interviews.
Babb stepped into his new role as Tech’s chief earlier this month after four years as the university force’s second-in-command.
Before that, Babb spent 25 years with the Roanoke Police Department, starting as a police officer and rising to lead Roanoke’s tactical team, oversee the police academy and supervise the 25 or so detectives in the city’s investigations unit.
Having grown up mostly in Roanoke and with a criminal justice degree from Roanoke College, Babb said he was completing something of a family circle. His father was a Hokie football player who graduated in 1964 and his parents married in Tech’s War Memorial Chapel.
Now Babb directs the Tech department’s 55 police officers and eight security guards — the latter being unarmed personnel who often work evenings checking building locks and other tasks.
Babb said he plans no immediate changes — “the only thing you can do is come in and ruin it — don’t be that guy,” he said, laughing. But he noted that Tech’s police are part of an ongoing reorganization, with many details yet to be determined.
The reorganization is part of former Police Chief Kevin Foust’s new assignment as Tech’s associate vice president for safety and security, tasked with coordinating operations of the police department and Tech rescue squad, as well as the emergency management and health and safety offices.
Comparing police work in Roanoke and on Tech’s campus, Babb said a big difference is in the development of community ties, which he called “critically important” to policing. Maintenance of these ties is difficult when 6,000 or so students leave each year, and another 6,000 or so arrive, he said.
“Our population rolls over every year … If we’re not constantly on it, constantly looking for new ways to make connections, we can very easily fall off on those connections,” Babb said.
Babb said that his hope is that students will see police “not just as keepers of the boundaries but as a resource.”
The new chief took a few minutes to answer several questions about himself and Tech’s department:
Is there a specific case or event that has defined your leadership style?
I don’t think there’s a specific case or event. My leadership style probably is a combination of the opportunities and experiences that I’ve gained over the years. Being from a fairly large city, we certainly had a lot of opportunity … to learn things and develop over the years. The city, one thing they do is they do a lot of investment in people from the standpoint of leadership. That’s both internally and sending people away for training. … Even early in my career I was an acting sergeant on the night shift when one of our sergeants got deployed. They look for opportunities to give people a chance to get experience when they can. And over the years, that kind of trust was instilled in me, that as I develop people, you should give them the right opportunities, the right training, and make sure they have a little bit of a safety net while they develop their own kind of leadership style.
I’m very people-oriented in my leadership style. I want to make sure that people understand what they’re doing and feel good about it. And the people that are working for them, even if they’re doing something they don’t necessarily want to do, they understand why and understand the importance of it and how it contributes to the overall mission.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Tech police department?
I think the biggest challenge is while people are in this phase in their life — they’re trying to experience things, they’re many times trying to push boundaries — but in getting them to recognize some of the dangers that are involved in things like that, making sure that they kind of stay safe while they do all of these things. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we have is that many times people get caught up in the moment and they put themselves, or find themselves in very dangerous situations I think is a better way to put that, whether it be alcohol, drugs, things of that nature.
We spend a lot of time talking about the shared responsibility of safety here in the community, and getting people to recognize that they’re not only responsible for their own safety but the safety of everyone around them.
Yunsong Zhao, the former Tech student who was charged with a weapons violation, then deported to China after the charge was dropped, said he was profiled and treated unfairly by police and the university as a whole. Given Tech’s history since the April 16, 2007, shootings, do you think it is possible for Tech to go too far on campus security issues? How do you safeguard individual rights while considering security questions?
So with respect to the Zhao case, obviously I can’t comment on it since there’s the potential for litigation. As far as addressing rights from the standpoint of 4/16, the university has a very well-developed safety and security program here on campus. I can tell you that protection of individual rights is important and key to the university’s posture on campus. As a general statement, we respect the rights of individuals across the board. That’s probably as simple as I can say it.