Alexandria police reflect on 2015, examine future challenges

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Alexandria police reflect on 2015, examine future challenges
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By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

The Alexandria Police Department may have had a number of recent retirements and other departures, but Police Chief Earl Cook said at a community meeting he believes the department will remain strong in 2016.

Cook stood at the podium joined by two new deputy chiefs — Chris Wemple III and Shahram Fard — who had been in their respective new positions for only 10 days apiece. But the chief assured residents that the department is prepared for the challenges it faces and has plenty of eager young recruits who are up to the task.

“I assure you, we’ve had a talent drain, but we have talent,” Cook said.

The community meeting, APD’s first of 2016, was a time for reflection as well as to look forward to what lies ahead this year.

The city’s crime statistics for 2015 are not yet available, as they first are submitted to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s centralized database before public release. Cook said he anticipated a reduction of overall crime by about 2.5 percent based on preliminary numbers.

Cook praised the work both of his detectives and Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter and his colleagues for bringing Charles Severance to justice. Severance was sentenced to life in prison on January 21 by specially appointed Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows for the murders of Ruthanne Lodato, Ronald Kirby and Nancy Dunning.

The seemingly random slayings shook the community, with Dunning’s death the first in 2003. Cook praised his department for its persistence in the case and bringing justice for her family, even though it took more than a decade.

“When we talked about [the Dunning] case 11 years ago, we talked about not forgetting it, not putting it on a shelf,” he said.

Cook also gave credit to his officers for bringing charges in two of the four homicides that took place last year in Alexandria. Several suspects have been charged in connection with the killings of Jose Luis Ferman Perez and Eduardo David Chandias Almendarez, whose bodies were found in Beverley Park and Four Mile Run Park, respectively.

And while the murders of Leon Williams and Shakkan Elliot-Tibbs remain unsolved, Cook emphasized that his officers are working continually to make progress in those cases.

“Our detectives, I assure you, are working with other resources in other jurisdictions to resolve them,” he said.

But Cook acknowledged there are plenty of tough tests ahead for the department, including how to build stronger relationships with the community. The idea of employing more community-based policing is something that is discussed on a national level to bring officers closer to the people they serve, and Cook said it is something that Alexandria must keep trying to do better.

“We have challenges ahead of us coming up, and in those challenges we have to be better in what we’re doing in community policing,” he said.

One thing Cook said has made a difference is the embedding of Officer Jonathan Ellis in the Andrew Adkins property at 700 N. Fayette St. as a community-oriented police officer. As a resident of that community, Cook said Ellis has helped bring down crime in the area by 70 percent while fostering relationships with neighbors and local youth.

Cook said with 12 community police officers in place across the city, the department is trying to maintain and build on its community outreach efforts, despite a steep decrease in community-oriented policing efforts since the economic downturn in 2008.

Going hand-in-hand with community policing and greater transparency, Cook said the department continues to examine the use of body-worn cameras to monitor officers’ actions and of those they come into contact with.

Cook said discussions are ongoing with City Manager Mark Jinks about funding for the cameras, and that a much greater community dialogue will be carried out before they are implemented.

“I have no doubt in my mind, our department and the city are committed to having body-worn cameras,” Cook said. “…We have a lot of work to do to try to build out the policy side of that.”

Cook did express concern at the proliferation of firearms and their apparent increased use in crimes like robberies and assaults. He also lamented the rise of imitation BB guns, which are almost indistinguishable from regular guns and are difficult for police to tell apart.

“I think we have seen more people armed when they commit these types of crimes,” Cook said. “It’s very troubling, because when we encounter these people, we have to determine if they have a live firearm or a BB gun.”

Cook pointed to the continued growth of programs like the Alexandria Police Youth Camp and the engagement of eighth and ninth graders in Alexandria City Public Schools as ways police look to build positive relationships with young people. That combined with a regional effort to try and prevent young people becoming involved in gang activities could be of great benefit, he said.

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