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Virginia Tech police chief praised for calm leadership

Story Highlights

• Wendell Flinchum has been in police chief's position for less than a year
• Flinchum tested during last year's inmate escape near Virginia Tech campus
• Chief is lifelong resident of university area
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BLACKSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- When the hunt for a jail escapee shut down the Virginia Tech campus last August, then-interim police Chief Wendell Flinchum won praise for his calm demeanor and decision-making.

There were rumors prisoner William Charles Morva, accused of killing two people while on the run, had entered the Blacksburg campus.

Flinchum "never got excited," former Blacksburg police Chief Bill Brown told The Roanoke Times. "When he said something over the police radio, he was calm and what he said was well thought out."

Reporters may have misread that demeanor Monday, when one remarked that Flinchum seemed "dispassionate" about the campus shootings that left 32 people and the gunman dead in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

"The safety of the students, staff and visitors are of paramount importance to me," Flinchum responded at Monday's news conference. "I'm deeply affected by it. I may not show my emotions, but this is one of the worst things I have ever seen. ...

"It has been a very trying day."

While Flinchum's pain may not have been evident to reporters Monday, his long ties to the area and the university make it seem likely.

Flinchum grew up in the Blacksburg area and began his law enforcement career at Virginia Tech, signing on with the university's police department while a student at the school in 1983. He became acting chief in July and chief in December.

"I am loyal to the police department and the university," he told Mainstreetnewspapers.com.

"I came up through the ranks of the police department and have lived in this area all my life," the Web site quoted him as saying. "This experience give me insight into the university and the police department."

Flinchum is not a Virginia Tech graduate, however, quitting the school in his third year there, according to news reports. He is on course to earn his bachelor's degree from Bluefield College this May after doing coursework in the college's adult degree completion program, according to that college's Web site.

Along the way, Flinchum piled up experience and training, including graduating from the FBI National Academy, a training program for leadership skills, and the University of Richmond Executive Leadership School, according to news reports.

While there were questions raised about how Flinchum's department handled Monday's shootings -- specifically telling the campus what was going on during the two-hour gap between the dormitory and classroom shootings -- Flinchum got the support Tuesday of John Marshall, Virginia's secretary of public safety. (Watch what SWAT instructor thinks officers should've done Video)

"I think it's important to note that yesterday morning [university President Charles] Steger and his staff, and Chief Flinchum in law enforcement, made the right decisions based on the best information they had available at the time," Marshall told a news conference.

Virginia Tech's former police chief, Debra Duncan, told The Roanoke Times, that Flinchum was the right person to replace her and a big asset when she commanded the department.

"Wendell was my go-to guy," she told the newspaper. "If I needed something done, I could go to him and it would get done."

Flinchum was the go-to guy on August 20, as the manhunt for Morva was going on, earning a commendation from Virginia's governor for his leadership during the crisis.

It was an experience he was supposed to share with officials across Virginia this Friday as a speaker at the general session of the Virginia Emergency Management Conference in Williamsburg.

That tragedy has now been eclipsed by Monday's horrific events.

After assuming the chief's job, Flinchum posted a message on the university's Web site spelling out what the campus community could expect from his department.

"We maintain a high visibility on campus not to catch you doing something wrong, but to give you a sense of security and safety," he wrote.

But later he warns, "Tech is a relatively safe campus; however, remember anything that can happen somewhere else can happen here."



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