Ahead of retirement, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne reflects on 43 years in law enforcement

Ahead of retirement, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne reflects on 43 years in law enforcement
Dana and Linda Lawhorne. (Photo/Louise Krafft)

By Mark Eaton | aboutalexandria@gmail.com

Jan. 1, 2022 will be the first day in 43 years that Sheriff Dana Lawhorne will not be involved in Alexandria law enforcement in an official capacity.

Lawhorne, who announced back in March that he planned to retire at the end of this year, worked his way up the Alexandria Police Department ranks in a 27-year career in which he became a respected detective. After serving with APD, he was elected to four consecutive terms – a total of 16 years – as the city’s sheriff.

Lawhorne’s experience in law enforcement ranges from meticulous and exhausting detective work to high-stakes hostage negotiations to managing the 210 people in the Sheriff’s Office.

Sean Casey, a captain in the Sheriff’s Office who ran unopposed in the general election, will succeed Lawhorne as sheriff. In looking back on his career, Lawhorne described an essential challenge of managing the Sheriff’s Office as “learning to balance the personal side of employees’ lives with the mission of the office.”

“People need to feel that the sheriff will help you meet challenges. Employees need to know that you care,” Lawhorne said.

Where it all started

Lawhorne’s professional law enforcement career stretches back four decades, but his personal connection to the job goes back all the way to when he was 14 years old and an APD officer took him on a ride-along.

In that moment, Lawhorne said he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

“I loved it. I said, ‘That’s me. That’s what I want to do,’” Lawhorne told the Times in February 2020.

After graduating from T.C. Williams High School, now called Alexandria City High School, in 1976, Lawhorne knew he was still too young to work as in APD – officers had to be at least 21 – so he got a job working as a security officer at what was then called the Hamlets, a set of three-story garden apartments located on Beauregard Avenue in the West End.

According to Lawhorne, it wasn’t quite law enforcement work – he was mostly responding to noise complaints – but he had a uniform, a car, a radio and a dream to one day become an Alexandria police officer.

“That thought just never left my memory bank. It was always my dream to be an Alexandria police officer,” Lawhorne said in February 2020.

A dream come true

Eventually, Lawhorne joined the city’s police force and right away showed a talent and passion for police work.

Alexandria Undersheriff Tim Gleeson, who has known Lawhorne since the early 1980s when Lawhorne served as Gleeson’s field training officer, said Lawhorne was a law enforcement natural.

“Obviously, people saw something in him early on – he knew how to work the street,” Gleeson said, noting that most training officers had much more experience.

Subsequently, Lawhorne encouraged Gleeson to apply to APD’s Detective Bureau and recruited him to the Sheriff’s Office.

A young Dana Lawhorne in his Alexandria Police Department uniform. (Courtesy Photo)

Lawhorne later helped create APD’s hostage negotiation team, serving on it for 22 years. He was the lead negotiator in several high-profile cases, including an extended, tense and dangerous confrontation in 1998 when hostages were taken inside a pawn shop near the corner of Beauregard and King streets. Ultimately, one of the two hostage takers took his own life while Lawhorne was talking to him. Lawhorne said the suicide gave him “a sense of failure,” but he was relieved that all the hostages were safe.

In April 2000 a boy, age 8, was tragically murdered while playing in the yard of his great grandparents’ Del Ray home. Lawhorne and a team of APD detectives spent eight days combing through records involving 500 licensed drivers and more than 400 cabs to find the cab, and the driver, that transported the killer from the scene of the murder. Ultimately, DNA samples recovered from the killer and the victim in the cab became key evidence in the case.

Lawhorne’s career as an APD detective included situations involving significant personal risk. In 1998, Lawhorne, who was on foot, found himself in the middle of a drive-by shooting on Mount Vernon Avenue. When multiple shots were fired from the back seat of a moving car, he ran after it and was instrumental in identifying the car and the shooter when the perpetrators were apprehended by other APD officers shortly after the incident.

The Sheriff’s Office

After 27 years in the police department, Lawhorne successfully ran for sheriff in 2005. He assumed the role of sheriff in 2006 and has remained in the role since then.

The Sheriff’s Office provides security in the seven courtrooms used by the judges of the city’s Circuit Court and General District Court and manages a jail that typically holds more than 400 inmates. In recent years, the jail has housed high profile figures, including Chelsea Manning, Paul Manafort and Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of drug lord Juan “El Chapo” Guzman.

Inmates at the jail range from those charged with terrorism to others charged with low level offenses, for example, being drunk in public.

“We are the end of the line for the extreme to the least extreme – they have the same basic needs,” Lawhorne said.

He added that his office tries to make the jail a “no judgment zone.” Judges can and will order “special measures,” or conditions of incarceration, that preclude an inmate from talking with others or watching television or reading newspapers.

“There are times when we are required to provide three people to move someone 10 feet,” Lawhorne said.

Lawhorne identified the “number one challenge” of the Sheriff’s Office as inmate mental health issues. The job often requires him and his staff to recognize and secure appropriate treatment for inmates who present a variety of undiagnosed mental health conditions.

Alexandria City Circuit Court Chief Judge Lisa Kemler graduated with Lawhorne from what is now Alexandria City High School and said that when Lawhorne became sheriff, he entered an office in need.

“The Sheriff’s Office needed a morale boost,” Kemler said. “Dana worked so hard to build camaraderie and morale.”

Former Mayor Allison Silberberg with Congressman Don Beyer and Sheriff Dana Lawhorne before the 2018 Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. (Courtesy Photo)

Kemler said she appreciated Lawhorne’s emphasis on courthouse security. She said that the sheriff’s deputies who serve as bailiffs are “top of the line” and that the system of assigning judges a deputy as a consistent or “go to” bailiff has worked well. Kemler also praised Lawhorne’s role in the city’s treatment programs, notably the Sober Living program which is designed to help inmates during and after incarceration.

Former Mayor Kerry Donley observed that as Lawhorne’s career responsibilities increased with his move from patrol officer to detective to sheriff, his commitment to public service also increased.

“This evolution was evident in the changes he brought to the Sheriff’s Office. He took the Sheriff’s Office to another level,” Donley said.

According to Donley, Lawhorne did this by increasing collaboration between APD and the Sheriff’s Office and raising the community profile of the office by getting officers and inmates involved in school and community projects, such as park and school clean-up efforts. Donley said that Lawhorne’s goal was that the Sheriff’s Office should be as visible in the community as APD. Lawhorne initiated the assignment of liaison officers from the Sheriff’s Office to the city’s civic associations.

“He made time available in the officers’ day” for community activities that “made the Sheriff’s Office more visible and more appreciated,” Donley said.

Changes in law enforcement

In looking back on his career, Lawhorne said he has seen law enforcement change nationally and locally, including in terms of public perception. Lawhorne said that he has seen public perceptions of the law enforcement “swing between love and hate, but we have always been needed.” For his part, Lawhorne said he has consistently tried to ensure the city’s law enforcement is engaged with the community.

“I’ve tried to educate, reach out, protect and serve,” Lawhorne said.

Lawhorne said he tells young people interested in law enforcement that, “It is still a noble profession – I don’t care what anybody says.”

“[He was] always somebody who wanted things done right,” former Councilor Lonnie Rich said of Lawhorne.

According to Rich, Lawhorne brought to the Sheriff’s Office an extensive knowledge of varied people and neighborhoods in Alexandria. Rich also said that the personnel decisions in the Sheriff’s Office during Lawhorne’s tenure, particularly the promotion of women and African Americans to leadership positions, showed that Lawhorne recognized quality and ability without regard to race, gender or ethnicity.

Former Councilor David Speck highlighted Lawhorne’s ability to read and understand people, two qualities that benefited him throughout his career.

“You underestimate Dana at your own peril,” Speck said. “He is smart in intuitive ways about people and the things that affect people.”

Outside his professional life, Lawhorne’s friends know him as an accomplished raconteur. Speck said that Lawhorne is “a great storyteller” and that this quality may cause people to underappreciate his abilities.

“[Lawhorne] understands public safety in all its forms. If Dana is on a job, you have confidence in his ability to make it right,” Speck said. “He knew what to do in a crisis or a jam.”

Lawhorne said he was most gratified during his career by “the opportunity to meet so many great people” throughout the city’s neighborhoods, political leadership and schools. He remains friends with people he met through cases he worked and believes that he “helped victims keep their dignity.”

Lawhorne has been active and outspoken on community issues related to zoning, public schools, traffic, notably the timing of the traffic lights at the intersection of King Street and Russell Road, and the city’s persistent flooding problems. He said he believes that some government officials have lost the perspective that they work for the citizenry and advocates returning to the system of holding local elections in May.

Lawhorne’s career in law enforcement may be coming to an end, but he intends to remain active in an effort to help neighborhoods and residents make government more accountable. He plans to provide security consulting and advocacy services to neighborhoods and residents.

“I’ve tried to run the Sheriff’s Office the way I’ve run my life,” Lawhorne said. “That involves respect, dignity, paying attention to details and spending money wisely.”