Del Ray is not a police state

79

By Robbin Warner, Alexandria
(File Photo)

To the editor:

I am writing to inform you of a situation involving the Alexandria Police Department on Friday, March 28, on Sycamore Street in Del Ray during our 13th annual neighborhood party celebrating large trash pickup.

Five police cars full of officers broke up an orderly street party — full of families — and then stood in the street for over an hour disrupting traffic. This behavior was not only overkill for the situation, but demonstrated poor judgment on the part of members of the Alexandria Police Department.

For the past 13 years, the residents of Sycamore Street have held a party celebrating large trash day, affectionately known as the annual trash party. This party traditionally is a potluck dinner held in the yard of one of our neighbors for people on Sycamore and the surrounding streets to celebrate the exchange of discarded treasures that line the sidewalks the night before large trash pick up day. Everyone on Sycamore Street and the surrounding streets are invited.

This year, the party started at 6:30 p.m. with a potluck. For live music, we had the neighborhood band, the Derds — short for Del Ray Dads. All five musicians are homeowners on Sycamore and the surrounding streets.

By 8:30 p.m. the party was in full swing. Toddlers danced to the music while neighbors enjoyed good food and conversations. People cruised the street, picking up treasures on the sidewalk that were once someone’s trash.

At about 8:45 p.m., two police vehicles arrived. The officers said someone had complained about the noise. We had planned to stop at 9 p.m., but stopped immediately. Then the officers said that it was illegal to have a party in a front yard with beer and alcohol. So, the cooler with beer and wine was moved to the backyard and everyone was told that alcohol only could be consumed there.

After holding this party for 13 consecutive years, we were a bit surprised by being shut down so aggressively by the police, but everyone complied so that the party could continue.

This is when the situation got concerning. Instead of this being the end of the matter, two more police cruisers arrived. The now four police vehicles were all but blocking off the street and intimidating cars from driving down in fear that a serious crime had been committed, given the extensive police presence. For the better part of an hour, up to six police officers stood in a circle staring at the party as if waiting for a crime to be committed.

When asked why they remained watching, they responded by saying that they were waiting for their supervisor. About an hour later, a fifth car arrived with a supervisor who stayed for another 45 minutes. Throughout this period, there was little dialogue between the residents and the officers. This lack of conversation was because of the officers — not the residents. This is a very friendly and chatty street. Residents tried to ascertain what was going on only to be treated harshly, as if merely speaking to an officer demonstrated aggressive and suspicious behavior.

I’d like to point out that there were more officers and police vehicles on the street the night of the trash party than when a burglary occurred on the street earlier in the year.

Was this an example of a slow night in Alexandria? No less than six police officers felt it appropriate to hang out on our street. Was this a case of police officers being inadequately trained and therefore unable to assess a harmless situation without verification from their supervisor? Or is it some new development? Do the local police no longer know or understand the community that they serve?

Whatever the reason, this situation reflects poorly on City Hall and our city councilors. I’m not bringing this to the public’s attention so that the officers and supervisor involved can be reprimanded for using poor judgment. What concerns me —and inspired me to invest the time to write this letter — was that, at a time when the police department is under harsh scrutiny with the rash of unsolved murders, seeing so many officers use poor judgment in reaction to an event that is at the heart of why people love to live in Del Ray is cause for concern to every Del Ray homeowner.

Block parties, neighborhood parties, house parties and the like are important for community building. People move to Del Ray because of its strong sense of community. For example, my street, Sycamore Street, is so desirable that houses are sold immediately; they never make it to market.

The fact that the police department acted as if a community event on Sycamore Street was suspect and worthy of six police officers hanging out for more than an hour is worthy of concern and investigation by City Hall.

I believe bringing something like this to the public’s attention is one thing, but it is equally important to offer suggestions for improvement. In that vein, I suggest the police take a seminar on the Del Ray community, its residents and activities. To that end, I would be happy to volunteer my services to arrange such a training event.