Deborah Cheesebro, associate vice president for public safety and chief of William & Mary Police, will retire at the end of the academic year following more than eight years at the helm of the department.
“Chief Deb Cheesebro has been a transformational leader and a devoted public servant among us,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler, who also serves as co-chair of William & Mary’s Emergency Management Team with Cheesebro. “She is the consummate public safety professional. I have learned so much from partnering with her.”
Following a lengthy career in law enforcement, Cheesebro said, the decision to retire was a difficult one and that she is looking forward to spending more time with her family, including grandchildren.
“While my professional career spans 52 years including 22 years as a university police administrator, these last eight years at W&M have been especially meaningful to me,” she said.
“I had the phenomenal opportunity to complete my career among the best of the best across our campus. I consider the outstanding police officers and staff that work directly with me as my work family, and they will forever be in my heart. I believe that W&M is a community of gifted, passionate and supportive people that make such a difference in the world.
“Additionally, I will always be grateful to President Rowe, Provost Agouris, Vice President Ambler and former COO Sebring for their active leadership and unwavering support of public safety, and of me professionally.”
Deputy Chief Don Butler will serve as interim associate vice president for public safety and police chief beginning June 1. The university will conduct a nationwide search for the post following the appointment of the university’s new chief operating officer.
“Deputy Chief Butler has the confidence of both the department and this community and is uniquely qualified to lead our campus in this transition,” said Ambler.
Butler came to William & Mary in 2012 following 20 years with the Portsmouth Police Department. He was promoted to Major in 2017 and appointed Deputy Chief in 2021. In November, Butler graduated from the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP) Professional Executive Leadership School where he was elected class spokesperson by his cohort.
“Chief Cheesebro has worked tirelessly to not only make the William & Mary community safe, but also to make sure the community feels safe,” Butler said. “Her leadership, empathy, compassion and humor will be missed. She has been a wonderful boss but also an amazing mentor and friend. It won’t be possible to fill her shoes, but Chief Cheesebro has prepared me and the department well for this transition and I look forward to leading WMPD in this interim capacity.”
Cheesebro came to William & Mary in 2014 from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she served as both senior director of police, public safety and emergency management and director of police and public safety.
As chief and associate vice president for public safety at William & Mary, Cheesebro oversaw the police department as well as the offices of emergency management, risk management and environmental health and safety. Since arriving on campus, she has led the growth of the police department to 24 full-time sworn officers and transformed both the policing philosophy and culture of the department, establishing a values-based approach to community policing that expanded the department’s commitments to integrity, professionalism, community engagement and fair and impartial policing.
In addition, Cheesebro set into motion a modernization of the department through revised policies and procedures; strengthened professional training and career development; reorganized organizational structure; revised recruiting, hiring and promotional processes and instilled a focus on qualitative response to community needs.
She strengthened the department’s reputation and relationship among neighboring agencies and established the practice of regular joint exercises. In 2019, Cheesebro guided the department through accreditation from the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission, an agency affiliated with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a perfect initial audit.
“More than anything, Deb prioritizes the building of relationships not only with law enforcement agencies across the region and state but especially with faculty, staff, students and families,” said Ambler.
Cheesebro was recognized by W&M Diversity & Inclusion in 2019-20 for “her efforts in recruiting and hiring police officers making the department more demographically similar to the W&M community and helping build tremendous relationships.” In 2021, WMPD received the inaugural Building Connections and Bridging Differences Team Award for its work promoting compassion, empathy and respectful discourse.
Over her time at the university, Cheesebro served as a member of the Risk Management Committee, as chair of the Threat Assessment Team and, since late 2020, as co-chair of the Emergency Management Team. She is also a past member of both the W&M Presidential Task Force for Preventing Sexual Assault and Harassment and the W&M Presidential Task Force on Race and Race Relations.
“It has been such an honor and privilege to lead people so dedicated, professional and compassionate in their daily work to keep W&M safe,” Cheesebro said. “Their efforts towards student safety, critical incidents, major events, managing threats, environmental risks and COVID challenges have been nothing short of extraordinary. They continue to wow and humble me as their leader.”
During her tenure Cheesebro completed a total overhaul of the department’s emergency communications center, including transitioning to fiber optics technology to enhance the reliability of the system, and she integrated WMPD, emergency communications, risk management, emergency management and EH&S under public safety.
Her leadership also extended across the state. In 2020, Cheesebro served as president of the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators following a tenure as an at-large member on its board. She is also a member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Association of Emergency Managers.
While Cheesebro said she will miss many across the campus community, she said the students will be the hardest of all to leave.
“Our students are simply amazing,” she said. “I loved being part of this environment and am privileged to have worked among the team that works so hard each and every day to keep people safe and facilitate the university’s mission. A piece of me will always be with W&M.”
Suzanne Clavet, Director of News & Media