By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook stood before residents at a community meeting Monday night at the Cora Kelly Recreation Center and repeated something he often tells the public when asked about the city’s crime rate.
“The good news really is that Alexandria is a safe city,” he said. “2015 has been a good year for the city and for the Alexandria Police Department.”
Cook cited data that said Alexandria has seen a 2-percent reduction in crime so far this year, a downward trend that has repeated each year for the last decade and is in keeping with the last four decades of overall crime reduction. He noted that the four homicides in the city in 2015 is in line with historical averages, saying there are normally between three and five each year.
But that did little to assuage the fears of some residents, who turned out to question the chief and his colleagues in the wake of two homicides in as many months, where the victims were found in Alexandria parks. Eduardo David Chandias Almendarez, 22, was found dead in the creek of Four Mile Run Park on December 4, less than a month after Jose Luis Ferman Perez, 24, was discovered with chop and stab wounds to his head and neck in Beverley Park, commonly referred to as The Pit.
Earlier this year, Leon Williams, 37, was shot to death on October 7 on Belle Pre Way, and Shakkan Elliot-Tibbs, 22, of Woodbridge, who was fatally shot July 2 along the 700 block of N. Fayette St.
Conversation at Monday night’s meeting was dominated by the question of whether gang violence has returned to the city. Cook said gang-related crime has decreased in recent years thanks to stepped-up intelligence sharing across the region. He emphasized that while investigators cannot be certain that the two most recent killings were gang-related, his experience told him they might be.
“I think early on in this investigation, my guesstimate is probably [that it was gang-related], but we haven’t got to the point where we can say that for definite,” he said.
Cook has said previously that members of several gangs live in the city, including the California-based Bloods and Crips. In previous years, Arlandria struggled with the influence of MS-13, a notorious Salvadorian gang, and at a city council meeting last week, Cook said his department works to keep gang activity out of the city but that gang members have always lived in Alexandria.
“What we have seen is that there’s been a constant residency of gang members living in Alexandria that has never changed,” he said. “It has been more or less depending on what part of the decade you’re talking about.
“Currently, it’s a bit of a guess because most gang members don’t identify themselves in terms of residency, and unless they break one of our laws or come into contact with us in some other way and [we] get that intelligence or knowledge, we don’t know they’re there. I would say 150 to 200 gang members are living in the city of Alexandria in any given moment.”
At Monday’s community meeting, gang prevention and intervention coordinator Joe Regotti outlined the programs the city offers for young people to prevent them from becoming involved in gangs, including after-school clubs and sports as well as direct intervention if they are at risk.
“Behind the work the police do, there’s a lot of prevention and intervention that goes on in the community,” he said, noting the role families play in ensuring their children lead positive lives and do not get sucked into the gang lifestyle.
Residents raised the question of community involvement on several occasions. They asked Cook how they can make their neighborhoods safer and engage young people in positive activities that keep them out of trouble. The chief urged residents to be the drivers of change, as the police cannot do it for them and more officers on the beat may have the opposite effect.
Cook said he was working with his colleagues to encourage officers to engage in more community policing, known as “discretionary time,” which involves officers getting out of their patrol cars and walking in the community, talking to people and answering questions. Cook said a staffing shortage has prevented the police from doing more of that, but the department is determined to look at increasing discretionary time given the rise in distrust between police and communities in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other cities.
On several occasions, Cook repeated his call for citizens to continue to contact police if they notice suspicious behavior.
“No call is too small,” he said, noting that the police were duty-bound to investigate everything, even if the caller is reluctant to get the authorities involved.
Detectives still are investigating all four of this year’s homicides. Cook emphasized that while the overall crime rate is on the decline, Alexandria is an urban city that is not immune to crime, and officers will maintain open lines of communications with residents.