Council discusses crime spike

Council discusses crime spike
City Hall (Photo/M Enriquez for Visit Alexandria)

By Ryan Hopper 

With crime on the rise in the city, Alexandria City Council spent more than half of its four-hour Tuesday night legislative meeting discussing comprehensive strategies to combat crime. 

“There’s nothing more important in what we do,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “The safety of the community is the number one duty of government.” 

Many different forms of crime are plaguing the city and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area at large. According to the Alexandria Police Department, larceny is up nearly 22%, stolen vehicles have increased by nearly 48% and aggravated assaults are up by almost 51% when comparing the statistics from the first half of 2023 to Alexandria’s 20-year average from 2004 through 2022. 

One of the most concerning is the recent spike in motor vehicle theft both locally and nationally. According to data from the Council on Criminal Justice, there were nearly 34% more motor vehicle thefts nationally from January through June 2023 compared to the first half of 2022. Washington, D.C.’s problem is considerably worse, with an increase of 107% since just last year, according to the Virginia State Police Department. 

A viral TikTok trend showing a relatively easy way to steal Hyundais and Kias is thought to partly explain this spike in car thefts. Alexandria Chief of Police Don Hayes encouraged Alexandrians who own the Korean-made brands to call the dealership they bought the car from or 311 to acquire theft protection for their cars. 

“A software flaw and a TikTok challenge was put out there,” Hayes said. “There were 118 of those cars stolen alone up to August 18.” 

The spillover of crime from neighboring jurisdictions into Alexandria is a concern to city leaders, with D.C. homicides eclipsing 200 before October for the first time since 1997, when 303 people were slain in the nation’s capital. 

One flashpoint of the meeting was when Councilor Alyia Gaskins pressed Hayes on community criticism stemming from the reporting of a September 1 incident on the corner of S. Washington and Wilkes Streets in Old Town. APD did not notify residents through the eNews alert system until September 14, despite the violent nature of the assault that was caught on a security camera. 

Gaskins asked Hayes about the lack of communication about this incident. 

“There’s certain things the media have reported that are not true,” Hayes said. “I’ll talk to you offline about that.” 

Hayes said he could not discuss precise details in a public setting because the investigation into the incident, with the criminal still at large, is ongoing. Hayes said the incident was initially classified as a robbery and not an abduction, an assertion that was at odds with what APD Spokesman Marcel Bassett told the Times in the Sept. 21 story “Delayed crime reporting draws ire.” 

“We didn’t leave that area until we were certain he left,” Hayes said. “Just because the person wasn’t free to leave at the time, that doesn’t mean the person was kidnapped.” 

Upon further questioning from Gaskins, Wilson abruptly cut her off and moved on to the next topic after an answer from Hayes. 

Despite the challenges, city leaders want to maximize the opportunity to work with their counterparts across Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia to apprehend suspects through new technology and techniques. 

To make it easier to prosecute those suspected of crimes, Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter has created a new multi-jurisdictional grand jury in partnership with Arlington County. He hopes to add more local Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices to the partnership in the future. 

Porter underscored the importance of obtaining grand jury subpoenas of suspects because a grand jury is the only legal process where a witness can be forced to testify what they observed. In addition, grand jury subpoenas, unlike other subpoenas, are served in secret, protecting the witness. 

“We can issue them a subpoena and compel them to come to court,” Porter said. “We are starting it this week and using it to combat serious, violent crime.” 

The city will also expand its use of a license plate camera pilot program, with 12 cameras being added to the six cameras already in operation. Over the last six months, the six devices have averaged 2.6 million plate reads per month, the devices have been responsible for $243,744 of property recovered, including 14 stolen vehicles. Hayes and Porter both contend that these devices will assist in collaborating with other jurisdictions tracking suspects entering and exiting Alexandria. 

City Manager James Parajon and Hayes pointed out that within the city, there have been a few notable hotspots of criminal activity. These include several residential areas, including the Reynolds Street corridor – specifically the Brent Place Apartments at 375 S. Reynolds St. – and the three-story apartment complexes on Beauregard Street by William Ramsey Elementary School, known as the Hamlets. 

To combat crime in these areas, Hayes touted the success of the new Community Assistance Safety Team that has been implemented in areas like the Reynolds Street corridor with 123 felony arrests, 11 stolen cars obtained and three guns taken off the street by CAST in the last six months. Hayes says the goal of CAST is not just to rack up arrests but to ensure that members of the community feel safer in their day-to-day lives. 

“We need to recapture the quality of life everyone deserves,” Hayes said. 

Two officers have also been stationed in the Reynolds Street corridor, with one stationed there for an entire shift and the other living there among the community, able to respond in his off time. 

“We are saturating the Reynolds Street area right now,” Hayes said. “You’ve [Council] seen the emails, people don’t feel safe out there.” 

Another hotspot of crime mentioned is the Bradlee Shopping Center, where Alexandria City Public School employees, including new superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt Ed.D., have been conducting random walk-throughs alongside APD to catch and return truant students to class at nearby Alexandria City High School. When caught and identified, students’ families are notified three times per day by email and text in their native language as opposed to the previous policy of a robocall once in the evening. 

“We are sending a clear message to the community that our schools are closed campuses,” Kay-Wyatt said. “If we can identify them, we try to engage with their parents immediately.” 

A major concern for APD in implementing these new strategies is staffing shortages, a problem police departments are facing locally and nationally. Hayes reported while there are 20 potential officers in the academy, with APD down 11 detectives and not having other officers due to a variety of reasons, such as injury, the department is still short-staffed. 

“We don’t have all the officers that it looks like we do on paper,” Hayes said. “When we get up to where we want to be with staffing, we will be able to have officers respond within their beats.” 

Following a comprehensive survey being conducted for the department, APD will have a long-overdue new beat structure that should be completed by April. 

“The report is going to give us a tool to make measurements so we don’t have to commission a new study,” Hayes said. “Our beat structures haven’t been reconstructed in years. Potomac yards wasn’t even in existence yet.” 

This drew the attention of Councilor Canek Aguirre, who wondered why this issue hadn’t been dealt with years ago, given the rapid development of the Potomac Yards neighborhood and the city as a whole in the past 15 years. 

“I remember talking about this [beat structure] six to eight years ago under Chief Brown,” Aguirre said. “This is unacceptable … let’s just get it done.”