By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Shortly after joining the city prosecutor’s office more than a decade ago, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said one of his first posts wasn’t at the city courthouse, but in an office along Mount Vernon Avenue in Arlandria.
“It was all about establishing good will in the community, and it went very well,” he said. “I did it for a year or so, and I thought it was wonderful.
“I was out of the office a lot, meeting people, going to cook outs and civic association functions. A lot of it was just explaining what we do, who we are, just helping people with questions about how city government works on a regular basis.”
Porter said around 2004 he did have to return to the courthouse. The grant funding the position had run out and his office hadn’t returned to the concept since then. Now, following his election as commonwealth’s attorney in 2013, he wants to bring it back.
City councilors unanimously approved Porter’s proposal to apply for a U.S. Department of Justice grant to fund a community prosecutor position. Although the new attorney would operate out of the city courthouse on King Street, the person would focus on community engagement as well as statistical analysis in conjunction with the Alexandria Police Department’s Statistical Response System to search for root causes of recurring problems.
The problem with how the commonwealth’s attorney’s office currently operates, Porter said, is that it is essentially “inbox prosecution,” where attorneys only act on the cases that police provide to them.
“It’s like a doctor just treating a patient’s symptoms — sometimes you can’t get to the root of an issue,” he said. “If a hotel is a haven for prostitution, instead of just prosecuting the four or five robberies a year that come out of the hotels … we could file a civil injunction against the hotel.
“Then we could exert resources in different areas, resulting in a better community as a whole. Instead of being reactive, I want to address cases proactively to find ways to benefit the community.”
Porter said having prosecutors more engaged with the community also would help with the traditional functions of trying cases.
“Getting people to testify can be a very difficult thing to do,” he said. “If someone is victimized, one of the hard things is to explain that, to try the case, we have to put witnesses on the stand. The Constitution requires it.
“So if we wait until we need people to cooperate to reach out to them, that’s not a good way to go about things. But if we’re out there, and we show people that we’re not scary or anything, that helps us in the long run.”
The grant application would be for $390,000, and would cover the salary of an attorney for two years, as well as some incidental costs like additional office supplies, Porter said. He hopes the position will produce results and allow him either to apply for a grant extension or to pitch an increase in funding to city council to make the position permanent.
City Councilor John Chapman said adding to the city’s data-driven public safety practices is a worthwhile endeavor.
“I think that kind of proactive step kind of heads off what could be more major issues down the road,” he said. “It allows us to be a little more flexible with how we look at law enforcement and look at issues as they crop up, not just waiting until a case comes or a problem turns up.”
Porter said with or without the federal grant, he has been working to get his prosecutors out in the community more often.
“It’s easy to get in a silo here,” he said. “You come in, you do your cases. … So I’ve tried really hard to have us a little more out in the community, and its part of how I evaluate my attorneys.
“So we go out to National Night Out. We had the Colors of Justice event last weekend, where we encourage minority youth to engage and participate in the criminal justice and do a mock court case. We just try to get people involved, and get people to give back.”