Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Outreach to the community

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Outreach to the community
Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

I have often wondered about the following scenario: If I were to step outside of the courthouse, stop one hundred citizens out on King Street and ask them if they know what the Commonwealth’s Attorney does, what percentage would answer correctly?

I suspect the percentage of correct answers would be relatively small, in part because Virginia bestows an unusual title on its elected prosecutors. If I could tell the briefly detained citizens my job is often known by the appellation District Attorney, the results would probably be slightly better.

While I have no current plans to initiate such a survey, given the authority inherent in my office, I strive to increase the public awareness of the responsibilities of my office. This column, for example, is one mechanism by which I attempt to augment my office’s local profile. Similarly, the past COVID-19-influenced year has offered opportunities for me to appear on a number of Zoom calls and seminars to answer questions about my office. Furthermore, as an elected official, it is important for me to hear the viewpoints of citizens, particularly in the area of criminal law and procedure.

Last summer my office initiated its new Community Advisory Board to reach out and foster ties with the citizens of Alexandria. We were impressed by the enthusiasm for the CAB; originally, we had planned for 10 citizen members, but the almost-overwhelming number of applications from interested Alexandrians soon caused us to enlarge the membership to 20. The current board members represent the diversity of the vibrant Alexandria community in age, background, expertise, race and gender.

Modeled after successful boards in larger offices across the country, our Community Advisory Board is a committed group that provides feedback to my office on a host of important issues. Board members in effect act as the collective voice of the community, learning about the somewhat arcane world of criminal law while providing me with insight on the issues affecting the community.

Over the past year, the CAB has discussed topics as varied as the legalization of marijuana, the city’s newly created Independent Community Policing Review Board and proposed legislative changes to the traffic code designed to protect vulnerable road users.

These conversations allowed me to hear a range of viewpoints and opinions and helped define what the local community really feels about certain proposed changes. CAB meetings have been filled with astute observations and thoughtful dialogue, and I have been pleased with the energy and honesty the board members brought to the table. The points raised and discussed during our meetings have helped me prioritize and address potential areas of change and have informed my discussions with city leaders and legislators.

The initial slate of board members was asked to serve one year, and the end of that year is approaching. Current board members will be given an opportunity to re-enlist for another year, but there will likely be several openings on the CAB this fall. Information about the application process will be placed on our office’s website this summer. Potential members must either live or work in Alexandria and are asked to complete a short, online application outlining their interest in the board and the types of issues and discussions they find important.

The CAB meets virtually at least once a quarter, usually on a Wednesday night. Additional meetings may be called to address important issues or events that are affecting the city. A typical meeting lasts anywhere from one to two hours, and we send an agenda about a week before the meeting so that members may familiarize themselves with the topics to be discussed. Since board members are volunteers with busy schedules, we are very conscious of time and every effort is made to end meetings no later than 9 p.m. If you are interested in applying, please keep an eye on our website.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.