It’s Homecoming Week and all of Vanderbilt is busy preparing for the weekend’s events. One of the main draws is the football game against Tennessee State University. But it’s more than just a three hour athletic event with all of the coordination takes place, especially from the police department.
However, this week is slightly different than most. The Vanderbilt University Police Department is hosting a joint tailgate with Tennessee State’s Police Department to celebrate and honor their staffs. Additionally, Vanderbilt is honoring members of its staff who have served for at least 25 years.
Planning for a usual football game is enough work in itself — security is always tight. But with all the police events going on, there’s extra steps needed to be done. They need to make sure that TSU’s staff has parking passes, the tailgate is planned well, the officers being honored get their football tickets and more.
Lieutenant Leshaun Oliver is a key person in making sure everything runs smoothly on the Saturday of the football game. In the Crime Prevention and Community Relations department, Lt. Oliver focuses on ways that the police department engages with the Vanderbilt community and its surrounding areas. But for an event like this, he has to help ensure that everything runs smoothly.
As he enjoys being able to celebrate the efforts of the police department as much as he can, working in this position in law enforcement wasn’t something he had always planned on doing. In fact, when he first came to Vanderbilt, he was rather ambivalent about the position he had stepped into.
There wasn’t necessarily any one direct influence that led Lt. Oliver to ultimately choose policing as his profession. While his grandfather who had been a sergeant in the Louisville Police Department, he hadn’t found that out until years later. Instead, it was the military background of several men in his family that piqued his interest in law enforcement.
“I always looked up to the people in the armed services, and I always kinda wanted to do that,” Lt. Oliver said.
When Lt. Oliver was younger, he had his eyes on law enforcement, just not on the policing side. Instead, he planned on being a Navy Jag officer, which is the equivalent of a lawyer in the Navy. He had been involved in Navy ROTC in high school, but the University of Tennessee, where he attended college, did not offer the program. Regardless, law was on his mind for some time.
As a political science major, it wasn’t until his junior year where Lt. Oliver realized that being a lawyer just wasn’t for him. After talking to the professor of his Constitutional Law class, he decided to pursue a new career in a related field. But he was still interested in working in the paramilitary field.
While looking around for careers within the industry, the FBI stuck out as an appealing option. So he applied, hoping to work in the public sector, but found out that he couldn’t just jump right into it.
“‘Hey Leshaun, you don’t have work experience’,” he recalled the FBI telling him. “And the way to get into the FBI you needed…some type of work experience, preferably law enforcement or militarian.”
After discovering this prerequisite, Lt. Oliver then narrowed down his choices. Either he would work for the United States Marine Corps or join a police department. He ultimately gravitated towards the latter for two reasons: his girlfriend and his boss.
“One, I was dating my then-girlfriend, who’s now my wife, and so I didn’t want to start a serious relationship, which we had been dating my whole senior year, overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan because everybody was going there,” Lt. Oliver said. “But meeting Chief (August) Washington, and he became kind of my mentor, is really what got me into it.”
Even after making this decision, Lt. Oliver still wanted to use this work experience to one day end up in the FBI. At the time, as a young college graduate, it seemed like a means to an end. Since then though, that has changed.
“I’ve since fell in love with what I do and have given myself a different career path than I was initially on when I was 23,” he said.
University of Tennessee to Vanderbilt
Lt. Oliver joined the University of Tennessee Police Department in his fifth year as a student and would continue to work there for seven years after graduation. In total, he spent 12 years at the University of Tennessee. As he enjoyed the work there, especially the leadership of Chief Washington, he did note one downside.
“I was a student leader while I was in college so I actually felt like I was for the first part of my career, kind of sheltered,” he said.
But at the same time, these people became part of his family. He knew that he could rely on them whenever he needed help with something.
“The same people who were my professors, the same administrators, the faculty members who took care as me as a student, when I became a police officer, they took care of me,” he said.
After his seven years on the force, Lt. Oliver and his wife decided to make the move to Nashville in 2011. They wanted to be closer to family, and Oliver’s wife had graduated from Vanderbilt and loved the city. He was excited about making the move, but he also recognized that he would have to make another decision of where he wanted to work.
Joining the Vanderbilt police department wasn’t necessarily his first choice. He had applied to work for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, but it was a lengthy process to join. That’s when he decided to take a harder look at Vanderbilt.
Two years prior, in 2009, Chief Washington had left his position at University of Tennessee to come to Vanderbilt. Having worked so closely with him in his almost his entire police career, Lt. Oliver had missed his leadership.
“I knew when he left UT, I’m like ‘dang man, Vanderbilt’s getting a good chief’,” he said.
Chief Washington’s presence at Vanderbilt became a defining factor in leading Lt. Oliver to apply for and join the force there. It was both his familiarity with how he ran the department and his utmost respect and admiration for Chief Washington, who was promoted to associate vice chancellor and chief of police in January 2014.
“The big selling point for me to come to Vanderbilt was I had already worked with Chief Washington,” he said. “I knew his leadership style…So I knew coming back and to work for him, I really looked forward to that.”
Even with the presence of his former boss and mentor at Vanderbilt, Lt. Oliver admitted that his first year on campus was more difficult than he had expected. It wasn’t the university itself, but rather how the police department was run. But the way it is run would be something he would grow to love.
“I knew when he left UT, I’m like ‘dang man, Vanderbilt’s getting a good chief’.”
“It was all about service, and that sounds like security, not police,” Lt. Oliver said. “And that was my mentality, sounds like security not police.”
While the transition was tough for him, he went through the process with four other seasoned hires who also struggled to adjust at first. Being able to share this experience with these officers played a crucial role in his development at Vanderbilt.
“They’ll tell you, it was a tough transition because we just weren’t used to the Vanderbilt way,” he said. “The Vanderbilt way is about excellence, and it’s about service, and there’s a lot of places that aren’t about that.”
What makes Vanderbilt special
While Vanderbilt students, faculty and administrators recognize and may flaunt the school’s top 15 ranking, that honor isn’t something that police department just sees from afar. They embody it and understand that they too play a role and must live up to the expectations, according to Lt. Oliver.
“It’s a culture,” he said. “That’s a culture that goes from the very top all the way down to almost every facet.”
In comparing Vanderbilt’s police department to University of Tennessee’s policing, he won’t say that one’s better than the other. Instead, he calls them different, highlighting the mentality of the people here and their focus on the community they serve.
“The police department is one that (the university) put(s) out front when they say one of our better departments because of our culture, because of our commitment to service,” he said. “We really changed the model.”
The model of the past, and for many still a current practice, was profiling. And while Lt. Oliver noted that they wouldn’t call it that when they were being trained in it years ago, it very much was a reality. The focus was on people and their actions and behaviors so that a reasonable suspicion could be built.
“In today’s time, that would be very very controversial,” he said. “That’s what we were taught in and what we practiced…This was throughout the nation.”
But coming to Vanderbilt, he noticed immediately that there was a difference in how this police department approached crime. To them, the focus isn’t on apprehending criminals (although that is still a duty), but rather on educating the community and reaching out to them.
In his current position, he works extensively on building relationships with the Vanderbilt community, especially those on campus. The department’s focus is to serve the people by listening to them and providing the proper tools and resources needed to help keep everybody safe.
“Your community figures out more of the problems than you do anyway, most of the time,” he said. “How you interact, and how you deal and how you treat people matters.”
As much as Lt. Oliver offers praise for Chief Washington’s mindset and implementation of such strategies, he notes how much effort and trust is required from everybody else.
“I know I give Chief a lot of credit, but there’s people between him that have to be committed to his vision,” he said. “So from his assistant chiefs to his majors to captains, lieutenants, sergeants, it all goes back down and everyone buys into it.”
And while the police department has strong leadership itself, those atop the university play a role. Communication between the police and those who have roles in serving the community are important, regardless of their specific area of focus. He points out the leadership of Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, VSG President Ariana Fowler, Chief Washington and Athletic Director David Williams as key figures in the ability of VUPD to succeed. Lt. Oliver describes these people as “committed to their department” and caring “about their community.”
As these important figures at Vanderbilt come together to meet and plan out how they can work together, they always make sure that the focus is on the students.
“Everyone truly knows that so what we’re here to do is first and foremost empower our students and keep them safe,” he said.
Reaching out to students
The majority of students at Vanderbilt will never have to interact with the police. Most people here will never have to report a crime or be apprehended for a crime. And that’s not a bad thing for the police department here.
Lt. Oliver uses an analogy to a referee in a sporting event to highlight this point:
“If you’re talking about the officials at the end of the game, they’ve over-done their job. It’s not good if we’re talking about officiating. They’re there to make sure the rules are being followed and it’s fair. We know they’re there. There’s time they intervene in the game, but they shouldn’t do so in a sense where the game is not enjoyable. In a great game, we talk about the game, those that are playing the game. We don’t even talk about the officials and that’s the role that police should play. If you never see us, then we’ve done a fantastic job.”
Instead of being reactionary agents, the police department seeks to be a proactive part of the university, equipping students with the necessary resources to be safe. Lt. Oliver speaks to all students at orientation and provides all the information they need to know about what to do if they ever find themselves in a situation of need or assistance.
“If the only time you ever remember talking to me was during orientation…great,” Lt. Oliver said. “That’s what we try to do.”
But even while their typical policing services may not be utilized by most students on campus, there is still an emphasis on keeping their faces out there. That allows them to be creative in the events they throw to engage students.
“We have this fun women’s self-defense class called RAD: rape, aggression, defense,” he said. “We do operation ID. I do the drunk goggles in the courtyard area where you get to drive the golf cart. We do fun stuff, and you might not know about it without us getting out there and pretty much promoting what we’re doing.”
Regardless of the type of event, Lt. Oliver’s role is to make sure that students are aware of the support they have if a crisis ever occurs. And by showing his face to as many students as possible, he is effectively publicizing the department.
Current Scene of Policing
The Vanderbilt Police Department has been able to stay out of the public scrutiny because of the ways it’s been run from the top down. There’s certainly nothing in recent memory where the actions of the entire department or a specific officer have brought negative attention to it or the university. Their image in the community has been nothing but positive.
But while there haven’t been any issues of note, that doesn’t mean that the department isn’t aware of it or isn’t actively preventing such problems. In fact, it’s often on the mind of Lt. Oliver.
“We know we’re only one incident away from being (scrutinized), whether intentional or not,” he said. “Anything can happen. You don’t know. You don’t want a major incident to happen on your campus, whether it’s, heaven’s forbid, an active shooter situation or our officer involved in something.”
The news over the past few years has featured plenty of incidents involving questionable actions by police, namely the killing of unarmed African-Americans. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling. These are just a few of the prominent cases that have been covered and have led to a greater dialogue about race in America, notably surrounding interactions with the police.
The media and public have covered and discussed these events in depth. As a result, the very tactics of policing have been brought into question, while departments try to figure out how to fix the issues that have plagued them. For Lt. Oliver, these incidents often conflict him because his professional and personal views can differ depending on the situation.
“As a law enforcement officer I see an incident, I’d hate to be in those guy’s shoes and getting the backlash that they get, but at the same time I can understand the community and the feeling,” he said.
While he always steps back and analyzes the situation, waiting for all the facts to be released, one thing always is most apparent to Lt. Oliver. That is, somebody is now dead as a result, and it surely could have been avoided.
“It’s a taillight. Let’s just keep going back to the fact that this man is dead for cigarettes. This man is dead over CDs,” he said. “Now you understand the frustration of the people in the community.”
Though these incidents force Lt. Oliver and others in the department to think about them from their own point of view, it provides a learning point . It’s not enough to just acknowledge the problem and draw whatever conclusion they may make. Instead, there’s a true focus on how they can best avoid these problems and learn from the mistakes of those in their profession.
“We’re always challenging ourselves to be better,” he said. “When things happen in the country, I recognize it and take it in and try to remove my personal biases when it comes to professional, and I think ‘can I be better?’”
Throughout the nation, those in law enforcement are facing more questions on their tactics. With more attention and cameras placed on officers, a simple mistake can have grave consequences. It has certainly affected the demeanor of the police and the way they handle even their daily interactions with people in their community.
But as the country wrestles with how police departments are run, there haven’t been the necessary steps taken to really make a difference, according to Lt. Oliver. He believes that there needs to be “more thinking people” in the higher administration aspects of the field. The police are the first contact that people have with the criminal justice system, and he notes that as a point that needs to be emphasized.
That’s where Vanderbilt stands out from the rest though, which Lt. Oliver wants others to know. It’s the focus on community that has allowed the police department to thrive here. And when Lt. Oliver mentions others, he refers to the Vanderbilt community and police departments all across the country.
“This is a unique model what we do at the Vanderbilt University Police Department that can be studied, examined and implemented throughout the country,” he said. “And if we did that around the country, it would change. I’m telling you it would change.”
Even though Vanderbilt is a smaller area to serve than Nashville or New York or any of the country’s major cities, Lt. Oliver sees no reason why their model wouldn’t succeed elsewhere. Instead of following the current theories of policing, which students or officers may be taught in classes and training, he believes that the “August Washington service model” is what should be followed.
Much of what police do is miscast in the media, whether on the news, in movies or on shows like Cops, according to Lt. Oliver. While those platforms highlight the reactive nature of the police, including actions shots such as car chases and shootouts, they miss out on the majority of policing. Lt. Oliver points out that the vast majority of their work is order maintenance.
“We serve and protect,” he said. “Less than two percent of what we do on a day-to-day basis is action.”
Although action isn’t a large part of most officers’ work, Lt. Oliver expresses how enough of the other time hasn’t actually been used as service generally across the nation. For example, he points out that officers can spend a significant amount of time patrolling communities but aren’t connecting with the people within them. Thus, he offers a solution: “Get out of the car then, go talk to the business owners, go talk to the people in your community, get to know them.”
But for him, reaching out of the community doesn’t stop after his shift. It’s a reason why he’s involved with civic organizations and an active member of his church.
“Service can go to every facet of life,” he said. “It doesn’t just stop.”
Back to the job
As Lt. Oliver bounces around the police department and McGugin, he talks with nearly everybody who crosses paths with him. He briefly steps into a shift meeting for officers about to start their workdays and talks to some of them. It’s apparent how often he interacts with those in the department and outside of it.
On a daily basis, his job requires that he reaches out to people all over campus, students, faculty and staff alike. That’s one of the parts of his job that he enjoys most. That and serving as an officer on the sidelines for football home and away games.
Photos by Ziyi Liu, Photography and Multimedia Director