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Policing in Alexandria

Excerpt from Justin's August Newsletter

With the murder of police officers in Dallas, Baton Rouge, San Diego, and locally in Prince William County in addition the deaths of citizens at the hands of police in Louisiana and Minnesota, the practice and profession of policing has dominated the headlines this summer.

Local incidents have now taken on a national presence as each incident contributes to a national narrative. Local police departments and policymakers must react to events taking place throughout our nation and not just in our community.

Last month in this space, I wrote about two emergent issues in our Police Department: the recently received staffing study, and the upcoming leadership change in the Department. I discussed our recent crime trends which show a continuation of record low occurrences in our City.

Our Police Department has an authorized force of 304 sworn officers. Every day, these women and men do a dangerous and difficult job and do it well. They are paid to disobey natural instincts and actively seek out danger to protect our neighbors and our possessions. We give them extraordinary powers, but ask that they exercise care, caution, discretion, fairness, and restraint in enforcing the law. They protect our communities from chaos and mayhem.

Here in Alexandria, we know all too well the danger police officers face each day. In recent years, we have seen officers brutally attacked simply for doing their job. Some have survived solely due to the important safety protections in place. Now being honored at the new Alexandria Police Memorial, we have a list of officers who have been lost in the line of duty. In a career known for its stress and impacts on family, we have also lost officers who have died from suicide.

We have also not been immune to situations where the use of force by police is questioned. We have had situations where that authority is upheld and situations where a law enforcement officer was instead convicted of an illegal use of force.

More than a few times, my "lead foot" has resulted in me on the side of the highway, awaiting a police officer walking to my window to inquire why I was in such a rush.

Whether justified or not, there are many Americans who approach their interactions with police with dread. Instead of the the sheepishness I felt for being caught speeding, many approach that situation with fear of how the officer might react to them or the assumptions an officer might make about them. A perception exists that our system has different outcomes in police interactions depending on race. That perception is supported by data in many cases.

We can argue these perceptions away. We can present data challenging the premise. Yet none of those tactics will address the underlying problem or reduce the fear and apprehension felt by some citizens in our nation and specifically in our community.

Where does that leave us in Alexandria? How do we react to the national narrative? How do we as a City look in the mirror and determine how we can learn by what is occurring around our nation?

We begin this discussion from a position of strength.

We have a highly skilled police force that represents the diversity of the community that they police. The department is taking new steps to improve the diversity of the workforce in future recruiting efforts. We are fortunate to have a Sheriff's Department with a sworn workforce that similarly represents our community's diversity.

Our officers participate in training aimed at de-escalation of volatile situations. We outfit our police officers with non-lethal force options to assist in the de-escalation of these incidents.

We have officers that participate in training designed to address implicit bias in policing.

The Alexandria Human Rights Commission conducts a review of each police use of force incident. The Commission also reviews internal investigation data to question and provide accountability of the department.

In May, the Council approved the FY 2017 to FY 2026 Capital Improvement Program (CIP). For the first time, a placeholder was included within the CIP to fund the deployment of body-worn cameras for our police officers. Although a few years away, the planning for this endeavor has begun.

While we must identify funding for staffing (in several areas) to administer a camera program as well as the cameras themselves, the priority must be to create policies and procedures so such a program can be a success. At the state level, as directed by the Governor and led by Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran (also a former Alexandria member of the General Assembly), the Secure Commonwealth Panel has developed a draft policy for jurisdictions to consider regarding the implementation of cameras.

While body-worn cameras do not solve all problems, they do provide an additional level of accountability and protect both officers and the public. I am hopeful that we can learn from the experience of our neighbors around the Commonwealth (and the nation) and implement such a program.

The staffing study that I wrote about last month included specific recommendations for increasing community policing. Such efforts have worked to improve the relationship between the police and the public they serve.

We can learn from the national narrative as well. A year ago, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing provided a comprehensive report on policing in America. Led by Professor at George Mason University, Laurie Robinson and Charles Ramsey, the then-Police Commissioner of Philadelphia (and former Washington, DC Police Chief), this group provided a thoughtful series of recommendations for departments around the nation.

Near the same time, the Center for Popular Democracy released their "Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing," which approached the issue from a different perspective.

While approaching the issue from different perspectives, these two reports found much in common.

Both reports focused on the need to address issues outside of policing that impact how policing occurs. Examples of this include poverty, incarceration, mental health, diversion, education and overall criminal justice policy. While many of these issues must be addressed at the state level, there are local implications.

For example, our Commonwealth's Attorney, Bryan Porter, recently adopted new policies in his office governing how some minor offenses are prosecuted. The goal of these new policies is to resolve the underlying violations of the law and not exacerbate the financial challenges of those already in poverty.

The reports both emphasized the need for good data throughout the criminal justice system. Good data helps us measure the impact of policies and calibrate our responses.

Both reports spoke to training and resources as well as internal and external oversight.

While Alexandria has avoided some of the most significant issues that have occurred around the country, we have not been immune. The national dialogue presents us with the opportunity to be proactive. Making progress on these engagement opportunities must be a priority of our next Chief.

I am hopeful that we can engage in community dialogue and craft a package of policy solutions that maintains the safety of our community, maintains the safety of the police that serve our community and helps us expand the trust and accountability in our police that must exist among our entire population.

Let me know your thoughts.

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