Gun violence in Alexandria doubles: Annual APD report reveals need for more officers

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Gun violence in Alexandria doubles: Annual APD report reveals need for more officers
Crime Statistics (Dara/Alexandria Police Department/Chart/Jessica Kim)
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By Amy Will | awill@alextimes.com

Alexandria Police Department’s 2022 review, presented at Tuesday night’s legislative City Council meeting, revealed that gun violence cases doubled in the city year-over-year, from 76 reported cases to 152, even as violent crime as a whole fell by 12.2%.

The review included a detailed break-down of the department’s goals, the city’s crime statistics and gun violence and what the future holds for APD post-pandemic.

In the opening of the presentation, Police Chief Don Hayes acknowledged the pivot his officers made during those uncertain years when the world shut down.

“We have one of the greatest police departments in this area. They came out and they are still doing so today,” Hayes said. He went on to read the department’s mission which definitively states: “to provide competent, courteous, professional and community-oriented police services.”

Other APD objectives include: strengthening public trust through community partnerships, enriching internal resources and stepping up transportation management via traffic enforcement, safety and education.

The review revealed a 12.2% decrease in violent crimes in 2022 compared to 2021 and cites a “downward trend from pre-pandemic times.” That statistic was overshadowed, however, by a 100% increase in gun violence during that same period.

A slide in the presentation breaks down calls received in the city for “shots fired” that were serviced from Jan. 1, 2018 to Feb. 27, 2023. The detailed heat map shows that the densest concentration of calls were in the North Fayette/North Patrick part of the Parker-Gray neighborhood, though the most calls overall were diffused throughout the city’s West End. These may include include calls where “no evidence of shots being fired could be found upon officers’ arrival on the scene.”

Just days ago, officers were dispatched to the North Fayette/North Patrick street area at approximately 7 p.m. for reported gunfire. No injuries were found in that instance. Representatives for the APD explained to City Councilors that those calls are sometimes the link needed to solve a more serious crime and emphasized that they are not taken lightly.

When asked if the gun violence unit contained enough officers to handle such a growing problem, Captain Chris Wemple responded, “they could always use more…but it’s enough to do what we need to do.”

Moving forward, programs such as Operation Cease Fire and a proposed gunshot detection system will help departments be more responsive in the community, according to the review.

Another critical tool for ensuring safety on the streets is the much-anticipated implementation of body worn cameras. According to the review, the roll-out is expected to happen in April and could take close to 10 months to complete. Thirty cameras are expected to be distributed each month.

“It is a very important milestone for us,” North said. “And I thank you for your support. Means a lot to the officers.”

North explained that, upon completion of an eight-hour training program, APD officers will receive body-worn equipment and immediately transition to live recordings. This process aims to avoid any delay from the time of instruction to the actual implementation of the cameras.

Part of the meeting focused on the chronic problem of understaffing. It was noted by both City Councilors and Hayes that community outreach programs, neighborhood cookouts and walks have helped in the communication between residents and officers. According to Hayes, having a robust patrol unit is the key to significant change in safety.

The review states that the APD is “operating at minimal sworn staffing levels,” indicating the department is stretched thin. Regarding officer positions, Hayes stated, “we are still down 70 (officers) available to work the streets out of 322.”

While APD is allowed to enroll and train officers at the police academy, those candidates cannot respond to calls alone. The review noted that the APD is actively recruiting new officers. On March 28, the department posted on their official Twitter account that an upcoming written test date, the first step in becoming an officer, has been scheduled for April 1.

Following the written exam, the hiring process consists of a background interview and questionnaire, a polygraph, medical and psychological exam, a job interview with the chief and to attend the academy and “start your new career.”

The Alexandria Co-Response Program is a specialized unit of three teams, which are comprised of a specially trained officer and a licensed behavioral health clinician on duty seven days a week to help those experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Part of the increase in the demand for new officers could be related to the spike in mental health calls.

“Mental health needs and police response has increased over the COVID-19 pandemic. Each mental health call averages a thirty-five hour response commitment consisting of several calls and shifts. ACORP improves response and reduces hospitalizations with direct outreach,” according to the review.

The APD review shared that the department answered a total of 2,387 behavioral health calls between October 2021 and September 2022. ACORP responded to 354 of these calls and twenty met the criteria for arrest. Only 2% of 911 calls ACORP responded to resulted in arrest and of the 20 calls the teams responded to that met the criteria for arrest, 70% of those were avoided.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Captain Courtney Ballantine, representing the Community Relations Division, said. “And we’re not only diverting from jail, but, from hospitals, too.”

Still, a reported 3,361 calls in 2022 were related to violent crimes, compared to 2,743 in 2019. Crimes in that category include homicides, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, as well as property crimes like burglary and auto theft.

On the same day these statistics were presented, APD responded to an armed robbery, a two-vehicle crash and reports of “shots fired.” These incidents all occurred within 12 hours of each other.

Crime Analyst Supervisor Amanda Caligiuri attributed a rise in some categories to the pandemic and indicated it is more than just a city-wide problem.

“In speaking with other agencies, they are also seeing these increases,” Caligiuri said.

Her thorough break-down of all reported crimes came in two parts: Part I listing those violent offenses and Part II falling under the category of “nuisance” or crimes that “disturb the peace.”

According to the crime statistics laid out in the review, there were two homicides reported in 2019, compared to six in 2022. Robberies also increased. There were 108 reported cases in 2022 up from 82 in 2019.

Larcenies, however, increased by 500 cases in just four years. Caligiuri speculated some of those thefts may have been packages swiped from doorsteps, as more people turned to online shopping.

When asked about the number of arrests made in the Part I crimes, Hayes could not give an exact number, but shared that, “all homicides have been closed except for one.”

Hayes addressed the time it takes from when a call is received to when an officer arrives on the scene.

“I know for a fact they are responding within an acceptable time,” Hayes said, though he conceded that a fully staffed APD would respond faster.

Branching off from the staffing issue, Mayor Justin Wilson and other City Councilors expressed concern that a number of officers who graduate from the academy never go to work for APD, indicating that some may be enticed to join other jurisdictions.

“When officers go to the academy, they sign an agreement to come back for two years,” Hayes said.

Hayes added that collective bargaining agreements – like that recently approved for APD – are helpful ways to recruit and keep talented officers in the city. An upcoming budget meeting will address the specific monetary needs and funding for the department and its programs.

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