Outgoing APD chief Don Hayes reflects on 42 years

Outgoing APD chief Don Hayes reflects on 42 years
Police Chief Don Hayes with recently retired Alexandria Fire Department Chief Corey Smedley. (Courtesy photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

After nearly 43 years with the Alexandria Police Department, Police Chief Don Hayes is hanging up his hat Friday and moving on to a new position outside of the city. Current Assistant Chief Raul Pedroso will act as the interim chief until a replacement is found.

In a recent interview with the Times, Hayes opened up about his decades-long career with the APD and how the city has changed since his time as a police officer.

He quickly rose through the ranks after starting as an officer in 1981, becoming a sergeant in 1996. Hayes was promoted to lieutenant in 1999, captain in 2013 and assistant chief in 2019. In December 2021, he was named acting chief and officially entered the chief role in April 2022.

As chief of APD, Hayes has had to deal locally with issues that are also problems nationally and regionally, such as staffing shortages, pay issues and gun violence. He was also criticized last fall for perceived poor communications with the community when an attempted abduction occurred on September 1, but the community was not notified until September 14. But, recent hires have seemed to improve APD’s communications issues.

Hayes said one of his proudest accomplishments is staying married to the same woman, Gloria, with whom he’s built a life with, along with their two children.

“I never lost focus on what’s most important to me, and that’s my family,” Hayes said.

From a career standpoint, Hayes said he’s most proud of “sitting in this seat.”

“Forty-two years ago, I didn’t believe [becoming police chief] would be possible because of the demographics and the dynamics of where we were in our society,” Hayes said. “But to actually be able to sit here now and to be ap- pointed the second African American chief of police, I think that is a significant accomplishment.”

Don Hayes in the early years of his career with the Alexandria Police Department. (Courtesy photo)

Hayes said when he first became an officer in 1981 at age 22, being chief of police was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I never saw a chief of police being a person of color. I’m just being honest,” Hayes said. “It just wasn’t going to happen in my tenure. I appreciate the fact that I was placed here and people poured into me and I got a chance to actually sit in this seat.”

He reflected on the early years of his career as an officer and teaching Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E. as it’s commonly known. Then- Chief Charlie Samarra approached Hayes to be promoted to sergeant in the 1990s, but Hayes was initially hesitant.

“I wouldn’t have taken my first sergeant’s promotion process because I had so much fun being a police officer,” Hayes recalled. “He basically told me, ‘You really need to put your name in the hat … because we need people like you to begin to lead this organization.”

Since the 1980s, the role and job description of a police or law enforcement officer has changed drastically, according to Hayes. He said technology is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, along with telework and recruiting and retaining qualified people.

“When I first came, it was like things were simpler,” Hayes recalled. “You would go to a call for service, take out a piece of paper, write a report and that was it. You knew what you were getting into because we were law enforcement officers. … But in the past four decades, things have changed. Now, we’ve become everything to everybody.”

Hayes said the surge of technology has completely changed the way crimes are solved. He said officers in his day were “recorders of Alexandria’s history” due to the lengthy records that were handwritten on a daily basis.

“With technology, it’s like night and day from policing back then. And not just taking reports, but solving crimes … and pick up what they call ‘digital evidence,’” Hayes said. “The body-worn cameras that we wear, that are capturing everything that the officers actually do – it’s a great tool. Now with [artificial intelligence] coming in, we don’t know where that’s going to take us.”

He also said the desire to be in the field has diminished with the popularity of telework since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can’t do our job from home,” Hayes said. “And how do you deal with that [challenge]? By making sure that you are compensating the people who are willing to still come out … and do a job that only a few people are willing to do.”

Police Chief Don Hayes loved his days educating children in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. (Courtesy photo)

Not only has the profession changed, but the city has, too. Hayes said the ever-growing population of Alexandria and the potential for an arena/entertainment district to move into the city, will “bring another dynamic to what we do from a public safety standpoint.”

“You can never rest on your laurels,” Hayes said. “You have to always be looking for what’s going to happen next and prepare yourself for it because when things happen, and they don’t know who else to call, they’re going to call us.”

He said this was especially apparent during the beginning weeks and months of the pandemic in March 2020. Hayes recalled the fear many police officers and public safety professionals had during those months: protecting the community from an unknown disease.

As chief, Hayes said he’s learned several lessons, but most importantly is the culture-building aspect of the workplace.

“People want to know that you care about them as a person as opposed to an employee,” Hayes said. “People want to know that they have value and [are] more than just being a producer. … And when you do that, you’ll find out that people are willing to stick around and give you the benefit of the doubt because they know you care.”

Hayes said he uses a three-pronged approach to leadership: do as much as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.

“I’m a servant leader,” Hayes said. “I want people to understand that I’m here to make your career what you want your career to be. … I’ve always wanted to make sure that people knew that they had value.”

Hayes, during his time in Alexandria, has also served as Oakland Baptist Church’s pastor from 2006 to 2022. Councilor Alyia Gaskins said his leadership as both a police chief and spiritual leader makes Hayes unique.

“My faith is really important to me and it has been the grounding for me and my decision-making,” Gaskins said. “Something I have always admired is the role that his faith has played in his leadership and how he uses his spiritual guidance to ground him.”

Hayes said he’s excited for this new venture as chief at a new agency and believes it was time for him to move on from APD to allow for a younger leader to grow the department.

“I want what’s best for this agency [and] I believe that somebody younger is going to come in here with some vision for this place,” Hayes said. “God’s opened another door for me to go somewhere else and to lead there for as long as he wants me to lead there. And then one day when he says, ‘Enough is enough,’ I’ll be able to enjoy myself.”