If you lived in Towers during the '90s, you probably knew Sherry St. Clair.
Night after night, the University Police officer patrolled the hallways and lobbies and watched out for the safety of residents.
“Towers was my little village,” St. Clair said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with the Daily Athenaeum. “I knew what was going on there, and everyone knew me.”
After the first three years of her career as a residence hall officer, she rose through the ranks of the West Virginia University Police Department. In 2018, she became the first female captain.
This week, St. Clair was named the first female chief in the department’s 60-year history.
“It's a great honor,” St. Clair said. “And I know I'm going to have younger girls coming up through the field that are going to say, ‘Hey, I can make it. She made it.’”
St. Clair was selected by a diverse hiring committee that considered more than 50 candidates in an extensive nationwide search.
This process involved people from around the University as well as members of the recently created WVU Public Safety Advisory Committee and the broader Morgantown community.
UPD has been led by Interim Chief Phil Scott since January. He will continue to serve on the force as he transitions to retirement.
St. Clair is a member of the WVU CARE team, a multidisciplinary group that helps at-risk students get the support and services they need to be successful.
“I care and I like to help people out,” she said. “When people are at their worst, it's always good to go in and try to help them out and get them going in the right direction.”
St. Clair inherits the department at a moment of change felt by law enforcement across the country.
After the protests of last summer following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, WVU formed a series of working groups.
One of the groups examined policing on campus and created the WVU Public Safety Advisory Committee, a collection of administrators, students, community members and officers.
St. Clair is a member of the committee and said it’s helpful to get input from students about departmental practices and procedure.
“It’s good collaboration,” St. Clair said.
When students break the law, St. Clair said it’s the role of a university police department to come alongside, not to necessarily throw someone in jail.
“We're looking at helping that student on,” St. Clair said. “That student is an 18 or 19-year-old. They're going to make mistakes. We know that. We need to help them solve it and get through life.”
Mental health is a big issue on campus, and while police are the ones who respond, the answer doesn’t involve handcuffs. Over a two-day period during fall break, the UPD responded to four separate incidents of suicide threats.
St. Clair said the UPD and the Carruth Center are getting together and organizing training for officers who deal with this type of call.
“I'm working with the counselors,” St. Clair said. “Our guys get to know their counselors, because we have to call them in the middle of night saying, ‘Hey, we need help.’”
Staffing shortages are a nation-wide problem for police departments. St. Clair said she knows this will be one of her first challenges at UPD.
“Retaining our guys and staffing is going to be one big thing for us, for sure,” she said.
As one of her first actions as chief, she plans to sit down with every officer in the department in the near future.
“A lot of my first month or two is just gathering information,” St. Clair said. “And let’s try to see where we need to go.”
She said one of her other priorities is a renewed emphasis on community policing.
These community policing and the staff shortage are linked. With more officers, they can be in the campus community more.
For instance, the residence hall officer program isn’t around anymore because the department doesn’t have the staff but St. Clair said she hopes to bring the program back.
She grew up in Monongalia County and started as a UPD officer while pursuing a bachelor’s in criminal justice at Fairmont State University.
As she gets ready to lead the department almost three decades later, St. Clair said she’s excited, nervous and honored all at the same time.
“I guess it really hasn’t sunk in yet, and everyone keeps saying it,” St. Clair said with a laugh. “I’ve never really put myself as a female with the rest of the department. I've just been around the guys and think I'm another guy in the department.”