Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our county has largely been spared the racial tension and police violence that grabbed this year’s national news.

But our insularity ended on May 31 when Arlington police, under a pre-agreement with the U.S. Park Police, responded ill-advisedly to a request that its officers cross the Potomac and aid in the crackdown on Lafayette Square anti-racism protesters. The point — as it turned out — was for President Trump to safely show cameras a Bible at a nearby church.

On June 1, wiser county leaders withdrew the officers. That prompted the creation in July of a work group to review Arlington’s own practices. Nationally relevant issues such as police training, perceived bias in treatment of minorities and rapid escalation to violence are being studied to determine whether our practices differ from others’ best. After the review is completed late this month, the county manager will forward recommendations to the county board. But a preview was offered Nov. 18 via an Arlington Committee of 100 presentation.

The history of Arlington police, of course, mirrors our broader history, which included enforcement of segregation laws. The notion of “racist” Arlington cops just this fall was dramatized by the production streamed from the downtown Round House Theater of the 1996 play “Sleep Deprivation Chamber” by Adam P. Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy. It is based on a 1991 arrest of a young black man for a busted tail light that escalated into assault charges.

At November’s panel, Kent Carter, vice president of the Arlington NAACP, said, “We have good operational lines of communications with the ACPD.” The group worked with Del. Patrick Hope to help the General Assembly this October include $6.6 million statewide for police body cameras to improve evidence gathering. But “without a seat at the table” for minorities, Carter added, “policing can get charged, with second- and third-order effects.” One disagreement: the NAACP has endorsed removing resource officers from schools because of “the number of cases referred out” showing minorities more likely to end up charged with a crime.

But acting police chief Andy Penn (Arlington is searching for a permanent one) said the “primary role of a school resource officer is not to arrest students” but to provide a “model.” Successful policing has always “come from partnership with the community. You have to engage on a daily basis, in every interaction.” Penn cited 55,000 hours of training annually for new hires that addresses “use of force, implicit bias, fair and impartial policing, dealing with [people with] disabilities, active listening and communication.”

The department’s annual report released in March showed that complaints against Arlington police rose 55 percent from 2018 and 2019, with “five allegations of racially biased policing, which were investigated and unfounded.”

New requirements that officers carry more military-style equipment are physically taxing, Penn said. A partnership with Virginia Hospital Center is helping the force ease stress through peer support, yoga and equine therapy.

Marcia Thompson, consultant to the Police Practices Working Group, reported mixed views on whether Arlington police should live in Arlington. “Some say an officer doesn’t have a commitment to the community if they don’t live there. But some police say it’s unsafe if they go to the grocery store with people they’ve had to lock up.”

With a starting salary of $56,000, Penn noted, it’s hard for an officer to live in Arlington.


The Arlington Historical Society is pushing ambitious plans to improve its aging headquarters at the Hume School on S. Arlington Ridge Rd.

“Arlington’s own artifact-rich museum is showing its wear and tear after nearly 130 years, and AHS is looking to make the museum more accessible and secure for our valuable collections,” said President Cathy Hix in the annual “bell-ringer” appeal.

Also on the case is retired Arlington treasurer Frank O’Leary. As part of a coming online tribute to the late state Del. Warren Stambaugh, his group has raised $22,000 toward its $25,000 goal to fund a study of the needs of that vintage building. Donate at Arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org.