From the beginning, Neil Welch was confident in his decision to attend Sacred Heart University – and years later, he is still pleased with his choice. “Attending SHU just felt like the right choice for me. The criminal justice program, the opportunity to continue to play hockey and the location were major factors,” he said. “I’m happy with that decision. I enjoyed my time at SHU. I am proud to be able to say that I am a graduate.”
Welch says he especially enjoyed his four years on the men’s ice hockey team. “I enjoyed the atmosphere and camaraderie of being part of a team. Playing for SHU reinforced that hard work was the key to being successful.” That hard work resulted in a historical moment for SHU and a special moment for Welch when the program transitioned to the Division I level. “I’ll never forget the day coach Shaun Hannah shook my hand while informing me that my teammates unanimously voted for me as co-captain of the Pioneers’ first Division I hockey team,” he recalled.
In addition to his sports activities, Welch served as a resident assistant. Not only did he enjoy working closely with his peers, but the job also prepared him for the future. “My position within the residence life program at SHU transformed me from being shy and unsure of myself into a confident communicator who was equipped with basic crisis intervention skills. That ability eased my transition to that of a rookie police officer working one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Atlanta,” he said.
After graduating from SHU in 1999, he pursued a master’s degree in education with a focus on student personnel administration at Springfield College. He continued his work as a resident director there as a graduate assistant. He had the challenge of directing a first-year student residence hall and overseeing a staff of 11 undergraduate resident assistants.
Since then, Welch has had a successful career in law enforcement that he attributes to the foundation laid at SHU. “After 18 months as a patrol officer, I was transferred to a highly recognized and controversial street level narcotics unit. I quickly learned that knowledge was power and found that the best narcotics officers were the ones who had the best understanding of criminal procedure, search and seizure,” he said.
After a suspect shot and killed his narcotics teammate, Welch did a lot of soul searching and decided to join the SWAT team as a firearms instructor. “I get the best of both worlds,” he says of his four years with SWAT. “I have been a lead trainer for the team itself, coordinating training events and specializing in less-lethal means of apprehension. And, in 2011, I became one of the team’s bomb technicians, which has presented me with a focused set of skills to maintain the challenges that come with IED device recognition, rendering them safe or disarming them.”
Welch has also taken his training skills to the private sector. “Many private companies are looking to train their employees on how to react if one of these events were to occur. Currently some teammates and I are in the initial phases of developing a training program for the response to a multi-assault terrorist attack. My training will build upon the previous active shooter response program and will teach first responding officers basic deployment techniques to be successful in countering such an attack,” he said.
Welch was recently invited to be on the Outdoor Channel’s Elite Tactical Unit (ETU), and he trained intensively for about two weeks in marksmanship before filming to ensure he would be competitive in all areas – not just his specialty – with the other SWAT officers involved. “I wanted to represent the Atlanta SWAT team well.”
Welch is often asked why he serves as a police officer. “I think the best answer is that I am obligated to the 18 other members of the team. My success during operations hinges on my teammates, and theirs depends on me,” he said.
Welch’s commitment does not come without its sacrifices, especially for his family. “Four years ago, my boys Jack, 9, and Andrew, 6, would spring out of bed and sprint to the door for dropoff at their mother’s house if I had to respond to a SWAT callout. They were excited for a call they weren’t even a part of. Now, I can barely get them to move, and they are angered when our time together is disrupted by work calls. This job can be a burden on them as well as on my ex-wife, Sara, but she remains supportive and rarely complains.”
When looking back on his time at Sacred Heart, Welch describes being “immediately struck with a sense of pride.” When others ask which undergraduate college he attended, he says most of the time, people even as far away as Georgia know of it. “I think the university should take great pride in being known. I hope that SHU continues on the path it’s been forging since I graduated in 1999. I am confident that SHU will continue to grow, offer quality accredited academic programs and attract a high-caliber student. I am proud to be a SHU graduate and am happy to see the progress the university has made.”