Policing in Alexandria and America: Public safety leaders discuss approaches to chronic, vexing issues

Policing in Alexandria and America: Public safety leaders discuss approaches to chronic, vexing issues
L-R: Former Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, Alexandria Police Chief Don Hayes, Sheriff Sean Casey and Nicholas Sensley, chief executive officer of the Institute for American Policing Reform, at a roundtable discussion last month. (Photo/Mark Eaton)

By Mark Eaton

Public safety in the midst of rising crime rates and understaffed police forces is an issue of concern in Alexandria and elsewhere. Disquiet surrounding police accountability has also continued to simmer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman in 2020 and similar tragedies in Memphis and Louisville.

In an effort to understand how these issues are being ad- dressed in Alexandria, Times freelancer Mark Eaton met last month with Alexandria Police Department Chief Don Hayes, Alexandria Sheriff Sean Casey, retired Sheriff and APD Detective Dana Lawhorne and Nicholas Sensley, chief executive officer of the Institute for American Policing Reform.

The perspectives of Hayes, Casey, Lawhorne and Sensley on today’s policing issues in Alexandria and the nation are informed by their more than 150 collective years of law enforcement experience. What follows is their discussion, presented in question and answer form.

At times the responses of the four public safety officials have been condensed into a summary and edited for clarity.

Q: How did Alexandria’s law enforcement leaders react to the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis which followed, among other incidents, the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis?

A: Nichols’ death in an encounter gone horribly wrong with the Memphis, Tennessee police, hit Alexandria’s law enforcement leaders, and Sensley, hard. Nichols was pulled over by the Memphis police in a traffic stop on Jan. 7 and died of injuries inflicted by the police on Jan. 10. The officers involved in the Nichols case had disciplinary records and limited experience.

Hayes, Casey, Lawhorne and Sensley expressed revulsion at the accounts of Nichols’ death. They expressed profound awareness of the damage caused by the repetitive tragedies involving African American men and the police, many of which originate in casual encounters. Lawhorne described the death of Nichols as “a murder.” He said that the overwhelming instinct of most police officers is to help people “and that was completely absent here.”

Lawhorne also pointed to the failure of EMS personnel at the scene to provide care to Nichols.

“This was a complete breakdown of the public safety system,” Lawhorne said.

Casey’s office, unprompted, issued a statement immediately after Nichols’ death saying that the actions of the Memphis police were:

“… not only counter to police training and acceptable law enforcement practices, they are in complete opposition to the sworn oath we take to protect life.”

Casey said during our discussion that “We wanted Alexandria to know how we felt,” about what happened in Memphis.

Public safety leaders discuss approaches to chronic, vexing issues

Q: How do APD and the sheriff’s office ensure ac- countability and transparency in their operations?

A: Hayes and Casey stressed the critical need for accountability and transparency in police-community interactions as methods of preventing incidents such as the Nichols and Floyd cases. Hayes said that APD routinely and voluntarily provides information on officer-citizen interactions to Alexandria Human Rights Commission.

Hayes said that transparency is a widely used word but that it was essential in establishing police-community trust. APD has organized a Community Advisory Team to facilitate communications with residents. APD also encourages residents to participate in its Community Police Academy to learn about policing methodologies.

“Everything we do is on the website,” Hayes said.

Q: What is the status of Alexandria’s citizen police review board?

A: Alexandria’s Independent Community Policing Review Board has been a long time coming, but it will soon be operational. Hayes is on record favoring the use of body-worn cameras by APD officers. Hayes even objects to the phrase “police and community.”

“The police are part of the community. This is essential,” Hayes said.

Q: How are law enforcement agencies faring in other parts of Virginia?

A: Virginia law enforcement agencies have not been exempt from problematic officer-citizen interactions. On March 16, second degree murder charges were announced against seven Henrico County Sheriff’s deputies in the death of a hospital patient in their custody. Casey drew a distinction between this type of behavior and his office.

“We have accountability in Alexandria,” Casey said.

Q: How does the training law enforcement officers receive that encourages them to exercise authority and exert control relate to police-citizen conflicts?

A: Sensley pointed to a “culture of authoritarianism” which has historically been fundamental to American policing. Sensley said that police agencies often rely on authoritarian approaches that degrade human dignity and lead to breakdowns in police-community relations, particularly in crime-plagued neighborhoods.

Lawhorne said police are trained to take control of situations but observed that there are different ways of accomplishing this. He explained that an officer’s understand- ing of context is essential. He distinguished between what is required of police when serving a warrant – such as in the Breonna Taylor case in Louisville – and a chance encounter that seems to involve, at most, a low-level misdemeanor, such as the George Floyd case in Minneapolis.

“He [the arresting officer] had ample opportunity to back down but instead he chose to maintain his position while acting like it was just another day in the park. It cost George Floyd his life. It was an awful, awful decision,” Lawhorne said.

Q: How can police departments build positive cultural norms?

A: The panel discussed the Justice Department’s highly critical report about the cultural norms of the Louisville Police Department that was issued after the death of Breonna Taylor, who died in a hail of gunfire when police were attempting to serve a warrant.

The panelists agreed on the critical importance of police department culture. Sensley said that cultural norms are established by the expectations that police agencies have for themselves and the expectations of the community.

Hayes described the importance of visibility and behavior modeling by police leaders in building a culture of service and accountability.

“They have to see you,” Hayes said. “And they have to know what you stand for.”

Lawhorne said that it was important for officers to be able to look at questionable peer behaviors and say, “That’s not who we are.”

Q: What are the issues associated with the organization and operation of special police units or task forces?

A: Special unit organization, or the constitution of task forces or other units with specific missions, are a long- standing method that police agencies use to address acute problems. Task forces, or special units, create a culture within a culture.

Hayes said leadership selection and mission clarity are especially important in establishing task forces which often interact with the most crime- weary parts of the city. Hayes and Sensley observed that the negative behaviors of the Scorpion unit of the Memphis police, which was involved in the Nichols case, were well known prior to the incident.

Hayes and Sensley stressed that accountability in task forces or special units is particularly important. Even the name of a task force is important. Casey referred to the disastrous corruption in the Baltimore Police Department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force.

“What does that name even mean?” Casey asked.

“If something is named ‘Scorpion,’ you know it is going to sting somebody,” Sensley said.

Q: How important is public perception of police department performance?

A: Police culture and public perceptions of police departments go together. Casey said that the public, in reacting to catastrophes such as the Nichols case, tends to see all uniformed personnel as equally blameworthy, without regard to the agency that an officer represents.

Lawhorne agreed and said that after the overwhelming reaction to the Floyd case he thought, “They [the public] have given up on us.”

Q: Are recruiting difficulties contributing to lower candidate quality and contributing to problematic police-citizen interactions?

A: There have been recent media accounts about the high number of vacant positions in police departments and partially filled recruiting classes leading to lowered hiring standards. The panelists agreed that hiring is a significant challenge. Lawhorne said that it is not possible to effectively staff a police agency today with people who are so mission-driven that they are willing to work without reasonable compensation and benefits.

Hayes and Casey identified hiring, and the removal of unfit personnel, as major aspects of their jobs.

Q: Should compensation scales for line officers be improved?

A: Lawhorne called for substantially improved pay scales for police and teachers with a starting salary for police officers of at least $80,000.

Q: What can be done about the fentanyl crisis?

A: The panelists concurred in the devastating impacts of fentanyl, a current and serious Alexandria problem now evident among young people. The rise in fentanyl use has caused police agencies to significantly increase their use of Narcan, also called Naloxone, to attempt to reverse opioid overdoses.

The panelists recalled the extreme toll taken by the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s. There were intense efforts by Alexandria police and other city agencies and officials, including active involvement by then City Manager Vola Lawson, to address the problem. The same type of response may be necessary to address the increasing use of fentanyl.

Casey observed that fentanyl is usually mixed with other drugs, a condition which adds to its lethal potential. Casey said that the person doing the mixing “… doesn’t care about the impact on his customers as long as he makes his profit.”

Sensley said that the war on drugs with federal and local police agencies as the primary combatants had been a long-term failure because it failed to address the underlying conditions that contributed to drug use.

Hayes described APD’s recent opioid-related arrest at an Alexandria residence as “a good arrest” that APD hopes will lead to additional ways to attack fentanyl distribution at its source.

Lawhorne described himself as an old-fashioned believer in the classic police credo “to serve and protect.” But, he said, “Sometimes you have to emphasize ‘protect’ over ‘serve’ and that’s the case with fentanyl. We need to protect our community by actively seeking and prosecuting those who manufacture and sell drugs.”

Q: What are the essential components to effective police department improvement and reform?

A. Sensley said that part of his organization’s mission was to convince police agencies nationwide to embrace reform as a continuing and necessary process. IAPR has developed and articulated the most important elements of police re- form as five interdependent pillars: community engagement, policing law and policy, accountability, leadership development and standards, education and training.

Sensley said there are approximately 18,000 police agencies in the United States and that their norms and practices in how they interact with citizens vary widely.

“There is no reason why the basics of policing could not be standardized,” Sensley said.

Lawhorne would add a sixth pillar, or priority, in the form of nationwide accrediting of police agencies, probably administered by a federal agency.

Casey, Hayes and Lawhorne endorsed the pillars. Hayes placed a special emphasis on the importance of police agency leadership.