Friday, March 8 will mark 18 years since Gary Roche was first named Chief of the Pulaski Police Department.
That day almost never happened.
“Between five to seven years, you lose a lot of cops,” Roche explains. “People go into this line of work because they want to do good and make a positive change in the communities they serve.”
“But it’s usually around that time in an officer’s career when they hit a wall and begin to question if they really are making a difference,” adds Roche.
“I was working in Roanoke County at the time and I had reached that point,” he continues. “I was ready to walk away and do something else.”
Roche’s plan to leave law enforcement changed – literally by accident – on a cold winter night.
“I was on patrol and had been called to respond to an accident on 581,” Roche recalls. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was freezing cold that night.”
“It was a bad wreck…young couple,” he continues. “The young woman was injured pretty badly and was screaming bloody murder but as soon as she looked up and saw my badge, the look of terror instantly left her face.”
“That was it,” Roche says. “It helped remind me that it wasn’t the big things – it’s the little things – that really make a difference.”
Fast forward to today and Roche will be celebrating 43 years in law enforcement come June 2019. The Bridgewater, Virginia native says his interest in becoming an officer goes back even before that.
“I worked at a gas station when I was 16 and we had all kinds of troopers and deputies stop by,” notes Roche. “Interacting with them and seeing their cars and uniforms made an impression on me, I suppose.”
“My mother says it goes back to when I got lost as a kid,” he continues. “I was four years old and a police officer brought me home.”
Roche, who obtained his Master’s in Criminal Justice from Radford University, acknowledges that law enforcement has changed drastically over the course of his career.
“The legal and liability issues are probably the biggest change I’ve seen,” he says. “There’s just so much more of that these days.”
“Policy has changed,” Roche adds. “It used to be that you were there to enforce the law and get to know the people of your community. I actually walked the beat when I worked in Harrisonburg.”
“Now, you’re expected to do a little bit of everything,” he says. “Our mental health responsibilities in particular have increased exponentially.”
Roche says those responsibilities include having officers go through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, handling domestic violence situations, and learning to mitigate trauma in children when a parent is arrested.
“Don’t get me wrong, those are all great things for us to learn and utilize,” Roche points out, “but it certainly adds to the level of moral and mandated legal responsibilities that we already carry.”
Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion on a matter, Roche has been particularly outspoken regarding the state mandate around the transport of individuals experiencing a psychiatric emergency to the first available inpatient bed – regardless of where in the Commonwealth that bed might be located. Roche notes that his department did 117 of those transports in 2018, transporting people to various parts of the state and often hours away from Pulaski.
“It’s dysfunctional,” he declares. “That’s nothing toward the mental health system or the individuals that need to be transported, but forcing local [law enforcement] agencies to give up literally hundreds of hours of staff time – plus the fuel and wear and tear on vehicles – just doesn’t make sense.”
Roche also makes a point to hear concerns directly from Pulaski residents. In fact, he hosts a “Coffee with the Chief” session the first Wednesday morning of each month at The Coffee Grinder, a local coffee shop. He says his primary goal for these events is to just listen.
“It’s a more relaxed way to interact,” Roche says. “It’s a place to take time and talk about stuff – good and bad – that’s on people’s minds…It’s more comfortable to look people in the eye and it’s definitely more personable.”
Roche says he makes notes at each “coffee” and takes the list back to his office to get started on addressing the issues that are raised.
“Doesn’t matter what it is,” he adds. “To that person, it’s the most important thing we need to do.”
Pulaski, like any other small town in America, has its share of challenges. Still, Roche finds something uniquely comforting about the locality he’s sworn to protect and serve.
“Everybody waves,” he says with a wide smile. “They know you by name…There’s a lot of community spirit and community pride here.”
Speaking of pride, Roche is particularly fond of his staff. Pulaski’s team of 29 sworn officers and four administrative staff are the primary reason that their Chief won’t even entertain thoughts of retirement at this point. He’s also proud of the fact that his Department earned state accreditation back in 2006.
“It’s a good bunch,” he adds. “They are extremely dedicated to this community but they have a tough, tough job.”
He says the challenges of being a police officer have also made it more difficult to hang on to good staff.
“Recruitment and retention is a national problem,” Roche explains. “At some point, jurisdictions are going to have to start paying cops what they’re worth and not just what they can get them for.”
Roche, a father of three, will soon be a grandfather for the third time. He’s actively involved in the local Rotary Club, as well as the Pulaski Community Partners Coalition (PCPC), Pulaski Triad (which focuses on crime prevention and education for older residents), and Friends of Scouting. It’s also not unusual to hear Roche talk about plans for regular fishing trips with his friends.
When asked if he could have one wish granted, Roche needed little time to come up with an answer.
“We need a new building,” responds Roche. “We’re out of space, it’s outdated, we’re susceptible to flooding…If I ever win the lottery, I’m building us one. I’m serious.”
While he waits for the winning ticket, Roche does feel that construction of the new middle school in the county will be vital to the future of Pulaski County.
“I really believe having that in place will have a positive impact on the economy and bring new people into the county,” Roche says. “That kind of thing eventually spreads and begins to touch upon other issues in that same vein. So, I’m optimistic.”
By MIKE WADE, Pulaski County Proud