Charles Samarra, former Alexandria police chief, dies at 74

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Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 in New York City. Samarra rented a van and together with members of his staff, drove to NYC. He wanted his staff to see firsthand the magnitude of the destruction. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Louise Krafft

Former Alexandria Police Chief Charles Edward Samarra died March 17 following complications from surgery. He was 74.

Former Alexandria Police Chief Charles Edward Samarra. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

Samarra, who served as chief from 1990 to 2006, was widely hailed for turning Alexandria’s police department around following years of turmoil. He also modernized APD’s use of technology, introduced community policing and fostered greater diversity in the department.

Prior to becoming Alexandria’s chief, Samarra worked for 23 years as a police officer in the District of Columbia. He was a foot patrol officer during the 1968 riots and rose to become the District’s lead officer on investigations.

Samarra helped oversee the Washington Metropolitan Police Department’s participation in the FBI sting operation of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was arrested while smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with a prostitute.

Samarra was APD chief during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

Restoring order

When Samarra became Alexandria’s police chief in mid-1990, he took the helm of a department that had been wracked with budgetary woes and labor strife. He was the APD’s third chief in three years, and was brought in by former City Manager Vola Lawson to clean up the mess.

“We had problems with budgets that didn’t add up and memos that had parts missing. We spent more time on police matters than almost all the other departments combined,” Lawson said in a July 25, 2006 Connection Newspapers article.

The APD was $500,000 over budget in fiscal year 1990, according to the Connection article. Alexandria’s police force at that time had “a demoralized rank-and-file” and the city was struggling with “a growing street drug problem,” according to a May 25, 2006 article in the Washington Post.

“I was looking for a professional chief who would have the respect of the officers,” Lawson said in the Connection article. “Samarra has brought the Police Department into the computer age and created a professional police force that the city did not have before he came to Alexandria.”

Before accepting the Alexandria chief job, Samarra had dinner with Lawson and the city’s two police union leaders, according to a May 28, 1990 Washington Post article. During the dinner Samarra pledged to improve labor relations by seeking union input. He said labor representatives would be welcome participants in his staff meetings.

Chief Samarra at the 2005 Valor Awards. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

According to former APD budget chief Amy Flenniken, one of Samarra’s greatest attributes was his vision.

“He took over a struggling organization and transformed it into a premier law enforcement agency: well run, fiscally responsible, innovative, able to flexibly address changing crimes and crises, Flenniken said.

Samarra was a “needed breath of fresh air” for the city’s police department, former Alexandria Deputy City Manager Michele Evans, who was in charge of overseeing the public safety departments, said.

“He met with each employee when he arrived. He used that information to make a plan for improving the department and to improve relations with all unions in the department which had been rather rocky before he arrived,” Evans said.

According to Evans, one of Samarra’s strengths was in seeking help from others when he wasn’t sure of something.

“He brought in people with expertise for the radio system, information technology, the forensic team. … Early on Deputy Chief [David] Baker was hired and he came in as a manager,” Evans said. “Bottom line was Charlie had excellent common sense.”

Former City Manager Jim Hartmann also praised Samarra’s vision.

“As a new city manager, I was blessed to have Chief Samarra at the helm of the police department when I arrived. He had been there for well over a decade and had the department in fine shape. I was very impressed with the depth of the management bench which made it easy for Chief Baker to succeed him when he retired and Chief Cook to follow along later. It was all designed to be that way,” Hartmann said.

A man of integrity

Numerous people citied Samarra’s strong personal ethics as a reason for his success, in his work and life.

Chief Charles Samarra with Alexandria Deputy Chiefs Earl Cook and David Baker. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

“He was a very ethical man,” former Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook, who served as one of Samarra’s deputy chiefs, said. “When you walked into his office, front and center was a Bible in his office. He never quoted from it or used it like that but it was there and you knew it was important in his everyday life and it was reflected in how he treated people.”

David Baker, another deputy who followed Samarra as city police chief, also cited the integrity of his former boss.

“Chief Samarra was well respected in the region and nationally for his intellect, integrity, vision, innovation and compassion for those who worked with him,” Baker said. “He served with distinction. He made things better wherever he went, and everyone knew and respected him for it.”

Hartmann concurred that Samarra was a man of integrity.

“He had very high standards and demanded they be met. He was a tireless advocate for the department and professionalism,” Hartmann said. “Integrity defines Charlie.”

Samarra also believed that people are fallible and deserving of second and sometimes third chances.

“All the times he did things for people, it was done to help people and he did it quietly,” Cook said. “If he could give you another chance, he did. What I got from his actions was that you have to be able to make mistakes and overcome them to have a [successful] life.”

Flenniken echoed Cook’s assessment of Samarra as both a leader and a man.

“He forgave mistakes whenever it was possible, and he encouraged every employee to become the best he or she could be,” Flenniken said. “He gave his staff every opportunity possible to succeed.”

Time to go

Samarra’s resignation as Alexandria Police Chief in 2006 caught many in the city off guard. Despite the fact that he had been at the helm for 16 years, Samarra was only 60 when he retired. It was ultimately concern for his officers that convinced Chief Samarra that it was time to retire.

Chief Samarra is presented with a shadow box containing all of the police badges from the Metropolitan Area Police Departments. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

Upon announcing his resignation, Samarra told the Washington Post, “I can only go to so many funerals,” referring to the then-recent deaths of two Fairfax County police officers who had been killed in the line of duty.

At the time, Samarra told the Post that he was ready to begin a new stage where he wouldn’t have to “send anyone out with the possibility they could get killed or have to kill someone.”

In his resignation letter of May 16, 2006 to then-City Manager James Hartmann, Samarra said, “I cannot continue to work under the constant threat of having another of my officers killed in the line of duty or putting them in the position of killing another. While I was hoping that my personal feelings would subside, I know that daily occurrences such as in Fairfax would only serve to rob my life of the happiness that I otherwise enjoy.”

Other accolades

Several other city leaders who worked closely with Samarra offered statements about their former colleague. Longtime Alexandria Congressman James Moran, Alexandria’s mayor when Samarra became police chief, remembered the APD leader as a uniter.

“Charles was a bridge builder. During a time when there were contentious and unsettling elements in the community, Charlie Samarra became the bridge builder that we needed,” Moran said. “He united the police force, expanding community policing to include non-traditional police work. Charlie was a professional and raised the stature of the entire force, gaining its respect and that of the community.”

Kerry Donley, who served as mayor from 1996 to 2003 while Samarra was police chief, cited his colleague’s leadership.

“Chief Samarra was a true professional. He came to Alexandria at a time of turmoil in the Police Department and he quickly took charge and restored order to the ranks and inspired confidence in the APD leadership,” Donley said. “He saw the city through trying times like 9/11, and his steady leadership helped Alexandria rise to the challenge. I will always remember him as a police chief who put the safety of the public first each and every day on the job.”

APD Chief Charles Samarra and Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Donald Haddock. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

Samarra was police chief during the first three years of Bill Euille’s tenure as mayor.

“He was very dedicated and committed to make APD the best it could be, and was very much respected by the rank and file and the community,” Euille said. “He was also a leader in bringing diversity to command ranks. He was always accessible and willing to meet with citizens and business leaders, when asked. I will always remember him for his defining mustache and big cheery smile.”

David Speck, who served on Alexandria’s city council during most of Samarra’s time as police chief, fondly recalled his former colleague.

“I both valued and enjoyed my time working with Charlie. He was a good cop in the best sense of the word – fair, professional, comforting when needed and strong when that was required. The foundation of excellence that he established has a lot to do with the respected department we have today,” Speck said. “But what I really enjoyed was his sense of humor – he was actually a very funny guy with a dry wit – a commodity in short supply sometimes, but always appreciated. This city was lucky to have him.”

Phil Sunderland, who worked with the former chief first as city attorney and then as Alexandria’s city manager, remembered Samarra’s innovation.

“Charlie was an exceptional leader of people, a smart and savvy manager of the department and a genuine innovator in the area of law enforcement principles, policies and practices. On a personal level, he was, quite simply, a wonderful individual,” Sunderland said. “If I were to characterize Charlie’s most significant and meaningful achievement while the Alexandria Chief of Police, it would be that under his leadership the police department earned what every police organization in the country strives to obtain: the respect and trust of the entire community it serves.”

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police & Foundation said in a release about Samarra’s death: “Charlie was a beloved figure in the region’s public safety community. He will be missed by many, but his legacy will live on.”

After Samarra retired as police chief in 2006, the Virginia General Assembly issued a proclamation when it next met in early 2007 that said, in part: “ … the General Assembly hereby commend Chief Charles E. Samarra for his longtime and distinguished service to the citizens of the City of Alexandria and the Commonwealth.”

Charles Edward Samarra was born on Aug. 14, 1945 in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania. He “grew up in a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, the son of a glass worker and a secretary who knew, from the time he ‘could barely walk,’ that he wanted to be a police officer,” according to the May 28, 1990 Washington Post.

Samarra graduated from Har-Brack High School in 1963. He majored in English for two years at Roberts Wesleyan College in North Chili, New York, before marrying classmate Mary Dunkle and moving to D.C. to take a job as a police officer, according to the July 25, 2006 Connection Newspapers. Samarra joined the D.C. police force in 1967, after earning his undergraduate degree in police administration from American University, according to the Washington Post.

Starting as a foot patrolman, Samarra rose through the ranks in D.C. to become assistant chief of police in charge of the Investigations Bureau. During his 23-year career as a D.C. police office Samarra held high-ranking jobs in several departments, including Internal Affairs, Homicide Branch, Planning and Development, Special Operations and the Investigations Bureau.

Though he worked in D.C. and Alexandria, Samarra was a resident of Marbury, Maryland. He is survived by his wife, Mary; their son, Chad; and a brother, Glen Samarra of Rochester, New York.

Viewing and services will be held privately due to social-distancing protocols suggested by the CDC and local health authorities. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Denise Dunbar contributed to this article.

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