The last few years in the realm of public safety have been tumultuous, to say the least.
Incidents involving police abuses against minorities have sparked protests and stoked racial discord across the country, from Portland to Minneapolis to Baltimore. We have seen numerous examples of bad cops.
Fortunately, in Alexandria, for the past 43 years we have had in our midst a wonderful example of what a good cop looks like: Sheriff Dana Lawhorne.
Lawhorne heads to a well-earned retirement in two weeks, and as we celebrate his accomplishments, it’s also instructive to learn from his example.
Being a public safety officer was a dream of Lawhorne’s since he was a child. When he graduated from high school but was too young to become a police officer, Lawhorne worked as a security guard at an apartment complex.
At 21, Lawhorne became a police officer and spent the next 27 years as a beat cop then detective in the Alexandria Police Department. He successfully ran for sheriff in 2005 and has served in that role since taking office in 2006.
So, what characteristics define a good cop? Opinions may vary, but here are a few traits that have helped define Lawhorne’s career and that we think are foundational for productive public safety:
• Familiarity with and a stake in the community where they serve;
• The ability to understand and connect with other people;
• Physical bravery.
As an Alexandria native who graduated from T.C. Williams High School, now called Alexandria City High School, and has lived his whole life in the Del Ray neighborhood, there’s no one who better personifies trait number one than Lawhorne. He knows Alexandria’s history, its more recent past and its present – and our city’s public safety directly affects him and his family.
Back in June 2017, when a man from Illinois opened fire on the Republican Congressional baseball team that was practicing at Simpson Field, Lawhorne – along with then Mayor Allison Silberberg, then Police Chief Michael Brown and others – walked the surrounding Del Ray neighborhood in the aftermath to check in on people. The gesture, and Lawhorne’s presence, had to be greatly comforting.
Anyone who has ever had a conversation with Lawhorne knows that he has a ready rapport with virtually everyone he meets. Those easy connections help build an invaluable web of information and interconnectedness. He also put those people skills to use in helping create APD’s hostage negotiation team, on which he served for 22 years.
His innate intelligence is perhaps the hidden key to Lawhorne’s success. As former City Councilor David Speck in today’s page 1 story, “A life of service,” said, “You underestimate Dana at your own peril. He is smart in intuitive ways about people and the things that affect people.”
Lawhorne’s intelligence also enhanced his effectiveness as a detective, including when he helped track down the man who killed 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett, a boy who was murdered while playing in his great-grandmother’s Del Ray yard back in 2000.
Lawhorne’s physical bravery was borne out daily in his years as a beat cop and detective, including an incident where he ran after a car engaged in a drive-by shooting.
Our society at large has rightly turned a critical eye on systemic issues in law enforcement and the excesses and abuses of individual police officers and is considering ways in which the provision of public safety might change. During a process like this, the negative is inevitably highlighted.
But it’s also important to remember the good cops who have devoted their lives to protecting the communities in which they live. Dana Lawhorne is an example to anyone considering a career in public safety, and we thank him for his service to Alexandria.