New police chief embraces Lexington’s small town charm

By Sutton Travis

Lexington Police Chief Sam Roman admits that he went through a phase as a kid when he wanted to be a pest exterminator. It didn’t last long.

“From the age of eight,” he said, “I wanted to become a police officer.”

Roman became the chief of police in Lexington on Oct. 2 after spending 25 years at the Roanoke Police Department, where he had reached the rank of deputy chief.

Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke Branch of the NAACP, said she often called Roman with questions about how the police were handling cases because she knew she could count on him.

“I could even call him, and if he did not have the information I was seeking, it took little or no time for him to find out what the situation was all about and be giving a return call,” she said.

She dialed Roman’s number when she heard accusations of police brutality in the arrest of a local man in August 2016.

Lexington Police Chief Sam Roman speaks with Special Enforcement Officer Loran Perez and Corporal Rob Smith. (Photo by Sutton Travis)

Roanoke police officers had responded to an EMS phone call just before midnight and found Alvin Murdock asleep in an idling car. The officers said when they woke Murdock up, he seemed to be under the influence of alcohol or another substance. 

Murdock gave the officers false identification and tried to run away. The officers chased, tackled and handcuffed him. A witness filmed the incident and sent a clip of the video to the Roanoke Times, claiming the police had used excessive force in the arrest.

Hale saw the video and was concerned. She contacted Roman. After watching the video of the arrest, Roman assured Hale that the officers had followed procedure.

“I think in most cases, people are willing to evaluate the whole situation,” Roman said. “But before they do that, they have to have the whole story.”

Hale said she trusted Roman’s take on what happened.

“He is concerned about having every citizen feel that the police department is there for them, that you can call them and that you can interact with them,” Hale said. “With him, it doesn’t matter about race or ethnicity or what your nationality may be. He is there to serve and protect each and every citizen.”

Roman faces challenges as Lexington’s police chief, including preparations for Lee-Jackson Day in January, which celebrates Confederate generals Andrew “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Both are buried in Lexington, and their graves attract people who are interested in the Civil War.

The chief says he understands the importance of his department’s approach to policing such events, especially after a white nationalist rally turned violent in the neighboring city of Charlottesville in August.

“From what I’ve seen, Lexington is very inclusive, tolerant of others’ opinions,” Roman said. “Certainly, I have a heightened sense of awareness as far as others coming into our community who are not part of the culture and bring things that we do not want here in Lexington. We’ll be prepared for just about any scenario that would surface.”

Lexington’s police force is smaller than the number of officers Roman had under his command in Roanoke. With a population of about 100,000, Roanoke is more than 12 times larger than Lexington. Roanoke has 305 employees in its department, compared to Lexington’s 22 employees.

“You have to really be efficient to be effective because there’s not a lot of extra as far as manpower allocation is concerned,” Roman said.

Roman said he does not plan to implement any significant changes.

“There’s always room to come in and use a scalpel to sort of surgically maybe trim off a little fat or maybe improve some sort of process that we have here. But from what I’ve seen so far, there is no need for any big changes,” he said.

Ethan Kipnes, director of Washington and Lee University’s public safety department, said he is encouraged by Roman’s interest in understanding not only the city, but also the university.

“I get the sense that he has that same sort of personality that it takes to be able to do that, where you understand that yes, of course, as a police department there’s always a job to do,” Kipnes said. “But there’s also the understanding of the importance of maintaining that feeling of a close-knit small community.”

Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones has known Roman since he started with the Roanoke Police Department at the age of 21. Roman was, for about an 18-month period, the youngest police officer in the department. After working together for so long, the two men became friends.

Jones described Roman as a “methodical thinker” and a “good representative of what a police officer should be like.” He said he thinks Roman will excel at bringing Lexington’s community together.

“You will see Sam Roman reach out to those segments of your community who might be on the fringes,” Jones said. “I think Lexington will find that he’s a great fit.”

Roman says he’s struck by how informal and easygoing people are in Lexington.

“Here, people just kind of walk in and say, ‘Hey, I was walking by, I thought I’d stop in and say hi,’” he said. “I actually like that, where people feel comfortable enough to just drop in and say hello.”

Roman said he believes being personable helps in police work.

“Oftentimes, if there’s someone who you have come across and all they happen to need is just a walk home and good conversation, that’s part of being a public servant,” he said, “and that’s what you do.”

Published Dec. 13, 2017