If it wasn’t for a failed eye exam years ago, Vienna Police Chief Robert Carlisle might never have entered law enforcement and today might be looking back on a career flying fighter jets for one of the military services.
Instead, Carlisle said goobye to Vienna on Tuesday, capping a 35-year career in law enforcement that began in 1978 when he joined the Fairfax County Police Department as a patrolman.
Becoming a cop, however, wasn’t his first choice.
“I had to choose and I wanted to fly; it was a sort of dream of mine,” Carlisle said. Though he had perfect vision, the doctors said he wasn’t fit to fly because he was going to need glasses sometime in the near future.
“I wasn’t so much crushed as it was a question,” Carlisle said. “Am I really going to need glasses? But they were right. By time I got to be an officer, on the road for five years, I had a little trouble reading the tag numbers on cars and I needed glasses.”
So Carlisle shifted gears and at 19 went on his first ride-along with the police. He was hooked.
“It was kind of exciting, responding to hot calls and the camaraderie, the way that the officers looked out for each other," he said.
It wasn’t necessarily the top choice at the time. The Vietnam War was just winding down and law enforcement officers were seen as part of the establishment. Plus, the element of danger of being an officer—there was a good chance you could get shot at—didn’t make it a good career path in the eyes of Carlisle’s parents.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that it wasn’t a popular choice with them,” he said.
Carlisle, originally from Rockville, Md., decided to join the force in Fairfax County. Carlisle found he loved the work.
“I wanted to be outdoors, liked the danger and teamwork. It was an adrenaline rush,” he said. “I liked the fact that the job would be different every day. You didn’t know what the next call would be.”
Diligent, Carlisle worked his way up in Fairfax County, retiring in 1999 as commander of the Criminal Investigations Bureau. He worked as an assistant chief in Falls Church until 2001, when he became chief of the Vienna Police Department.
The department was in shambles. About a quarter of the 40-officer department had resigned, the previous chief had not left on the best terms and morale was at rock bottom. Undaunted, Carlisle quickly went to work, drawing on his experience as a commander in Fairfax County.
“In Fairfax, the command staff gets moved around about every three years,” Carlisle said. “Some of the new duty stations are just terrific and others need a lot of work when you get in there. For all of my career, I have been moving into a new command. It felt just the same as before but a little different.”
He rebuilt morale one officer at a time, got more money from town council and returned the department to full staffing in a few years. Few resign from the department these days. He said he considers bringing the department back up to speed as one of his best career accomplishments.
Mayor Jane Seeman applauded his work for the town.
“Anytime I've asked him to check on something or for more information about an issue he immediately complies,” Seeman said. “He is very community oriented. He reorganized the structure of the Vienna Police Department and he mentored many officers and provided opportunities for them to receive training and education.”