May 4-10, 2001
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Police chief's watch ending after 17 years
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Mike Sheffield
Jim Carpenter
Mike Sheffield

Police chief's watch ending after 17 years

By Dan Heuchert

Raymond Haas took a chance when he named Mike Sheffield the director of the University Police Department back in 1984. At that time, Sheffield, then 39, had just eight years of law enforcement experience and no college degree.

“The really important thing was, I believed he had the confidence of the people he worked with,” recalled Haas, then the University’s vice president for administration. “The second thing was, I perceived that he was the type of person who worked well with our units and other people. And one could only look at him and see that he was very bright and always appropriate in his representation of the University, even as an officer.”

Seventeen years later, with Haas among a large crowd who turned out March 8 for a Carr’s Hill reception in honor of Sheffield’s retirement, the chief remembered.

“I really appreciated what Mr. Haas did for me,” Sheffield said. “He took a risk by putting someone with very, very limited administrative experience in that position.

“I also noticed he retired shortly afterward.”

Haas’ successors, Raymond Hunt and Leonard W. Sandridge, reaped all the benefits from his gamble. As he steps down, Sheffield is being hailed for his leadership of a department that has grown in size, responsibility and reputation under his command.

“The evidence of Mike’s leadership is in the quality of his department, and of the women and men who serve in that department,” said Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Sheffield announced in August his intent to retire, with the hope of stepping down by January. But he agreed to remain until a successor is named, and now plans to stay on through graduation in May. After that, his plans are unclear; at age 56, he feels he has more productive years ahead of him, but intends to take at least a month off before making any career moves, he said. As chief, he regularly works seven days a week and puts in 14-hour weekdays.

“I’d like to see him relieve some of that stress. He needs time to himself, some play time,” said his wife, Sue Sheffield, who joked that she will expect him to have dinner waiting and laundry done when she returns home from her job as guidance director at Monticello High School.

U.Va. Police Department
U.Va. Police Department
124 full time employees
69 police department personnel, including 59
sworn police officers
24 community service officers
31 Health Systems Security Department personnel
• Annual budget: $4 million
• Officers patrol the grounds on foot and using
cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles.
• The Department has received four Governor’s
Awards for crime prevention.

When Sheffield took over the police department in 1984, there were 71 employees and a $1.2 million budget. He will leave his successor a force of 133, with a budget of $4 million.

The growth in the department goes beyond mere numbers. The police before Sheffield arrived had a reputation — perhaps undeserved — as little more than a glorified campus security force, Sheffield said.

“One of the things I really wanted was for us to develop into a well-respected, professional department,” he said. “When I first started, we were viewed as a training ground for other departments. Now, we’ve started to have people from other departments wanting to come here.”

Sheffield put a great emphasis on training and made himself an example. His resume lists 16 different professional programs he has completed, including finishing first in his class at the FBI National Academy at Quantico (which is administered by the U.Va. School of Continuing and Professional Studies).

His tenure has also been marked by an emphasis on crime prevention. He served as a crime prevention officer before becoming a captain and then director — his title was later changed to chief, because “people didn’t know whether I was director of a band or a police department,” he joked — and that focus carried over into his leadership.

He initiated the installation of additional lighting and video surveillance cameras in parking areas. He brought in the use of computers to process crime data and host a “Silent Watch” Web site to report incidents. His department also took on management of the previously student-run Escort Service.

Sheffield’s department has also partnered with local, state and federal authorities in several projects, including the March 1991 “Operation Equinox” drug raids on several U.Va. fraternities, the interstate probe into the thefts of several rare maps from Alderman Library, and last fall’s breakup of a large “ecstasy” drug ring. The University is a partner in the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement task force and shares dispatch and communications operations with the Charlottesville and Albemarle police departments.

Throughout all of the professionalization efforts, Sheffield has maintained a family atmosphere inside his department, which he oversees with friendly smiles and a folksy manner.

“I would have to say he’s probably the best boss I’ve ever had,” said Lt. Maryann Gritman, who works in records management and training and has 17 years of service with the UPD. “He’s always there, his door’s always open. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

“I couldn’t ask for a better boss,” said officer Allen Marshall, a former Facilities Management employee who joined the force in June, but has known Sheffield for 20 years.

One of Sheffield’s favorite challenges was to help plan for visiting dignitaries. “Where else can you find a little local guy who’s had an opportunity to meet as many important people as I have?” he said.

During his tenure, he worked with outside agencies to arrange security for several presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, various entertainers and the 1998 gathering of Nobel Peace laureates. The toughest event, he said, was the 1989 “Education Summit,” which brought then-President George Bush, much of his Cabinet and many of the nation’s governors onto Grounds. That event was “totally disruptive to the entire University for such a long time,” Sheffield said, since the VIPs stayed longer than the more common in-and-out appearances, and there were more of them.

Then there were the unexpected events, including investigation of the infamous “baby-switch case” at the University Medical Center and, most memorably for Sheffield, the collapse of a Lawn balcony during graduation in May 1997 that killed one visitor and injured many others.

“I was very proud of my people, because of all the pre-planning. You couldn’t ask for a better textbook response,” he said. “If you can have that kind of response to that kind of incident in the middle of 25,000 people, and lots of them didn’t know it happened, that’s pretty good.”

“Mike has been a rock in times that seemed precarious,” said University President John T. Casteen III.

He has also been a mainstay in calmer times, Sandridge said. “He’s much more than a police chief. He’s an important part of the University’s senior administration and a close personal adviser to me on many issues. Certainly, his credibility is highly respected by all the constituent groups within the University.”

There have been frustrations, too. The mysterious 1986 disappearance of graduate student Patrick Collins from Jordan Hall — a case for which the department received much criticism from Collins’ family — remains unsolved. More broadly, student alcohol abuse and its health, safety and criminal ramifications continue to be problematic, he said.

“It’s very clear in our minds that a lot of alcohol issues start in high school, or even earlier,” he said. The key to addressing them is to work with students, not to impose “solutions” upon them and to remain vigilant even when things appear to be going well.

“I think the critical thing is to continue the dialogue and communication,” he said. “When we make a decision to do this program or that one and we don’t get input, then we run the risk of not being successful.”

Despite the ups and downs, Sheffield says he looks forward to coming into the office every day. “The good things far outweigh the bad things,” he said.

Seventeen years after Haas’ gamble, it’s clear that it paid off.

“It’s not at all difficult to salute Mike and thank Mike for what he’s done,” Casteen said. “What’s difficult is to replace Mike.”


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