John Vinson, the UW’s new police chief, is a veteran law enforcement officer who stresses that cooperation and teamwork are how to make a good police department even better.
And this doesn’t come solely from experience on a beat — he also has a master’s and a doctoral degree in public administration.
Vinson, 37, will begin his new job officially on Feb. 23, but he took a few minutes during a recent Seattle visit to talk about his approach to policing and the challenges of becoming the UW’s top cop.
“I like to say I am the coach of the team, but ultimately we all are players and have different roles,” he said. “We are all in this together and with that mind-set, collectively, we’re going to make this work together.”
He also places a strong emphasis on public outreach and community policing — working cooperatively and proactively with the community, he said, to “create an environment where they know we are here to assist them with their safety and security.”
Toward that end, Vinson favors improving the police department’s outreach efforts — “letting the public and the University community know all the good things that we do.” He added, “I think we need to sell ourselves a little bit better, to get the word out.”
Vinson brings a wealth of experience to his new position. He comes to the UW from the Isabella County Sheriff’s Department, in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., where he is undersheriff and has worked about four years. Before that he worked nearby for the Central Michigan University campus police — a return to where his interest in policing first took hold when he was a 22-year-old student.
He earned a bachelor of science in business administration and a master of science in public administration from Central Michigan, followed by a doctorate from Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. He also has training at the FBI National Academy.
After school he worked a while in the Battle Creek Police Department, about an hour and a half west of Detroit. And from there he went to Royal Oak Township, which is also a Detroit suburb.
It was in Royal Oak, he said, that he changed course back to a university setting. “I decided to get back into campus policing because I worked for the university police department as a student and I got exposed to the integral parts of policing and said, ‘This is where I really like to be.’”
Geographically, this Michigan man is a long way from home, but Vinson said he’s glad to be making the move to the Pacific Northwest. “It’s an awesome part of the country. From everything I’ve read about it and everything I’ve felt and seen since getting here, it just appears to be a great place to move and to raise a family.”
The married father of two sons — one is 1 and the other just turned 5 — Vinson says he’ll move to Seattle first on his own, and his wife, Susan, and family will join him in the summer. “It will give me time to find the right place for us,” he said.
Policing on a college campus is a different job than in an urban environment, Vinson said. “This environment allows us to be, in my opinion, more proactive — allows us to do more outreach and provide different ways we can reach the community in a nonconfrontational way.”
Yet it doesn’t mean that a campus agency is any less ready for events and emergencies than its outside counterparts, he noted. “We do need to be prepared, and have the necessary training and equipment to respond to those events that might confront us.”
Indeed, in a time when assaults and other crimes near campus have heightened both community concerns and police responses, Vinson said it’s important for the UWPD to work well and smoothly with outside agencies.
“That collaboration, that partnering needs to take place — it’s absolutely vital that there is open communication and perhaps joint approaches to solving some of these issues that go beyond the University boundaries,” Vinson said.
This will be Vinson’s first job as a police chief, but he seems more than ready. “As with any new challenge there will be a little anxiety, but you know, the bottom line is that we have a great staff. I’ve been meeting with employees in the department and I’m even more excited because I know we have a good structure already in place.”
He added that the job represents “the opportunity to join an outstanding university and an outstanding police department.”