By Lori Dresner, Managing Editor/News Editor
Chief of the University Missouri–St. Louis Police Department and director of institutional safety Forrest Van Ness has announced that he will retire from both of his positions at the university next month.
Van Ness, an UMSL alumnus who attended the university from 1980 to 1991, started as chief of UMSL PD in 2010 and succeeded former chief of police Bob Roesler.
A veteran and graduate of the FBI National Academy, Van Ness served nearly 30 years as the captain of the St. Louis County Police Department prior to becoming police chief at the university. His last day with UMSL PD is set to be May 12.
As chief, Van Ness has been responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the police department, parking and transportation, the campus locksmiths, and the department of environmental health and safety. Van Ness has committed himself and the police department to maintaining international accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) and positive relations between UMSL PD and the campus body.
He spoke with The Current about his time as chief, his commitment to UMSL and higher education, and the future he foresees for UMSL PD.
The Current (TC): What changes have you seen while you’ve been chief of police here?
Van Ness: We did not have 24-hour supervision when I came. We had three sergeants, and we had some officers that filled in when the sergeants were absent, but we really didn’t have someone with the supervisory experience to make sure that the officers are given the support that they need to do the job that they’re tasked with. It started with first-line supervisors. We were able to create six positions. When people left, we replaced them with a sergeant, so the cost was minimal to do that.
We [also] developed a recruitment plan with a minority component. With that, we have two different bureaus within the department. We have a police operations [bureau], and then special operations are the engagement component. So we have two different missions within those bureaus, and then we’ve got the command [officers] to run those.
TC: What is it like working at UMSL PD on a daily basis?
Van Ness: I start early. I start at six in the morning so that I can catch the midnight officers before they get off. And then the phone starts to ring.
Communication is paramount. We can’t work in a vacuum. The things that we do revolve around that professionalism [that comes from] CALEA. It gives us a body of standards to follow. Bob Roesler [former chief of UMSL PD], who was here in 1997, began that process of accreditation, and we’ve maintained accreditation since then.
TC: What made you choose UMSL?
Van Ness: I valued education a lot and knew how vitally important it was. I worked with Dean Gaffney from the evening college [while I was a student]. We had an evening college then. With that education, I was able to go into the headquarters for the St. Louis County Police Department.
The value of the education was just so remarkable. It let me do things in my career that I could have never done without the education. So when I retired and learned of the position for the chief here, it was an opportunity to give back to the campus that had done so much [for] me.
TC: What are the biggest challenges you faced as chief of police, and what do you think are some of the things that might need to be [changed] under the next chief?
Van Ness: We’re short three officers. Regionally and within the system, our pay structure needs to be reexamined. The Proposition P that was just recently passed is for municipal police. We won’t get any benefit from that.
[We don’t have] body-worn cameras. The other campuses have invested money in those, and we’ve not been able to invest money [in them]. We’re working with REJIS (Regional Justice Information Service) to partner with them to provide funding for that. The cost of law enforcement continues to increase.
TC: What would you say have been some of your personal accomplishments as chief of police?
Van Ness: To walk and talk CALEA. To really create a culture that these professional standards are meaningful. It’s all about that collaboration [and making] sure that we understand what our goals are and why we’ve got these goals.
TC: Do you think that you’ll stay involved in the UMSL community once you retire?
Van Ness: I think so. Every year since I graduated, I put my donation card into the alumni association. I did that when I was with St. Louis County, I’ve done that since I’ve been here, and I’ll continue to do it. I will share that I hand write in “the evening college” even though there’s not an evening college [anymore].
HR asked if I’ll participate in the selection process [for the next chief], and I said that I’ll do whatever’s asked.
TC: What will you miss most once you retire from UMSL PD?
Van Ness: Service to this community. I will probably transfer that service from this community to the church community because it’s about giving more than you take. So I will miss that giving because it starts at six in the morning and doesn’t end until late in the afternoon.