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Majority of City Council Questions Month-Long Police Teleworking Initiative Amid Pandemic

(Updated on May 21 at 2:30 p.m.) A majority of the Alexandria City Council wants to know more about a month-long police teleworking initiative during the pandemic, and one member wants to see a full internal report.

Between April 6 and May 2, the Alexandria Police Department reduced its enlarged patrol presence (with added school resource officers, K-9 officers, traffic safety section officers and community relations officers), and on any given day had one-third of assigned patrol officers (18-24 officers) teleworking at home.

City Manager Mark Jinks and Police Chief Michael Brown declined to comment on the subject, and the city will not release information on how many officers were on vacation during that period.

City spokesman Craig Fifer said that the teleworking provided a “less stressful time for officers and their families.”

“Having an unnecessary level of patrol staffing would have needlessly exhausted limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), increased risk to officers and their vehicles from potential exposure to the virus, and failed to model the stay-at-home guidance everyone in the community is expected to follow,” Fifer said.

Last week, Jinks said there was “significant telework,” and that police were made available to respond to a “much worse situation.” Officers were paid full-time to turn on their work laptops and answer a handful of daily calls for service, according to sources inside the department. The impact on crime is debatable, since crime was down in April from the previous month, although increased by 10% when compared against the same four week period last year.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that he expects the city to evaluate this practice, in addition to many other government decisions during the COVID-19 crisis for years to come.

“Some we will likely get right and some we will likely get wrong,” Wilson told ALXnow. “We just hope we make more good ones than bad ones.”

The city, which says APD maintained minimum staffing levels, said it was an “innovative” solution.

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker did not agree with the decision, but said sending 911 operators home to take calls was “innovative.” In Arlington, for instance, the 911 call center was shut down because of a suspected coronavirus case.

“It’s clear that as we move forward, public safety is one of many areas we will have to continually evaluate as to how to maintain the balance with public health until there’s adequate testing and a vaccine,” she said.

Last month also saw more than 700 positive COVID-19 cases in Alexandria.

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman wants to engage with the city manager on Alexandria’s teleworking philosophy.

“I know that is something beat officers should not be doing,” Chapman said. “I think it doesn’t pass the smell test for the public, so a conversation about why that was used, even in light of coronavirus, needs to be discussed.”

A source familiar with the situation, but who remains anonymous for fear of reprisal, said the rationale behind the decision is flawed.

“The stories don’t add up and people are scratching their heads,” the source said. “Chief Brown claims he started teleworking in order to protect his officers by reducing their exposure to coronavirus. If it was such a great idea then why did he stop doing it?”

Councilman Canek Aguirre wants to know more.

“At this point I don’t have sufficient information to comment but will be inquiring further of staff,” Aguirre said.

Councilman Mo Seifeldein wants a full review on police teleworking.

“The most I know about this matter is from the media,” Seifeldein said. “I will wait for a full internal report. Public health and safety are the foundations of a healthy government, which makes inquiries about them important.”

City Councilwoman Amy Jackson is against the teleworking move.

“We need to be responsible about this virus,” Jackson said. “This pandemic will hold us accountable. If this decision wasn’t a mistake in April, it most certainly would be in May and the coming months.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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