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Retiring Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne is going to be a badge-less community problem-solver

With packed boxes by the door, retiring Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne gets a little emotional in his office. After all, he’s been wearing a uniform for 43 years.

There’s a large framed poster of the classic 1950 film “Harvey” on the wall next to his desk — a gift from his deputies who share a fondness for nostalgic movies. In the film, Jimmy Stewart’s good-natured character is pressured against his philosophy of being “Oh, so pleasant,” rather than “Oh, so smart,” in life.

It takes plenty of smarts to be the sheriff for four consecutive terms, but the 64-year-old Lawhorne’s connection to the character of Elwood P. Dowd is more about an ability to empathize with people — a strength he honed from a rough childhood and for decades as an Alexandria Police officer.

“I’m not a degree snob,” Lawhorne said in a recent interview with ALXnow. “That’s always been my Kryptonite. I am not proud of this, but I stopped learning in the seventh grade. The wheels fell off in my life.”

Lawhorne was born in Fredericksburg, and moved to Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood when he was two years old. Lawhorne and his wife, Linda, have been married for more than 35 years. They have three children and two grandchildren.

His parents were raging alcoholics, and he spent much of his youth dealing with the police to handle his mother. He became a police officer when he turned 21, and spent the next 27 years as a cop. Lawhorne’s everyman style has come in handy on multiple occasions, as he founded the police department’s hostage negotiation team in the 1980s. He’s the officer they’d put on the front lines during emergency situations, like talking to jumpers on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

It’s expected that Lawhorne isn’t going quietly. He hasn’t shied from expressing his disapproval with city leadership throughout his tenure, most recently lambasting the city manager for Alexandria’s flooding issues.

Lawhorne says that a years-long effort to increase stoplight timing at King Street and Russell Road (changing to 30 seconds last year) is a prime example of his disapproval.

“A 22-second green light backs up Russell Road,” Lawhorne says. “We all suffered years of asking the city to change it. Why couldn’t we have a 30-second light like everybody else? One time I went to see a dear friend of mine who was dying. Her last few days on this earth and her sister said she couldn’t go pick her up some prescription drugs because of the traffic backup on Russell. I mean, come on.”

Lawhorne’s not going away anytime soon. He just started a new firm, Dana Lawhorne and Associates, with a focus on helping businesses, private citizens and neighborhoods cut through some of the red tape at City Hall.

ALXnow: How are you feeling these days? Forty-three years is a long time.

Lawhorne: It is. I have mixed emotions. I definitely feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Sixteen years ago, I ran for sheriff to do five things. I did that and more, which I feel really good about. I just feel sad that I won’t be doing something that I’ve dreamed about since I was 14 years old.

ALXnow: Are you going to miss the uniform? 

Lawhorne: Yes. It fills me with pride. It’s like armor. It’s the number one symbol of who we are and what we are about, which is protecting and serving everyone. I always have a uniform on in my mind, because it seems like I can never separate myself from a duty that I took an oath for and still believe in. I never feel like I’m not wearing the uniform, even when I’m not working, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

ALXnow: Why did you start the police department’s hostage negotiations team?

Lawhorne: I did that about 22 years. It’s all about finding what’s missing. I could look at something or you could tell me a story and I would figure out, “Okay, there’s something missing from that story.” That came in very handy as a detective, and in 1984 our hostage negotiations team really didn’t exist. That’s what was missing. They didn’t train. They weren’t organized.

ALXnow: Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy toward emotional engagement with people in your staff, in the jail, even at City Council? 

Lawhorne: I can only trace it back to growing up and being a troublemaker understanding troublemakers and growing up in a household where my parents were alcoholics. My father was a nice man. When he drank he became nicer and very passive. My mom was a nice person, but when she drank it was a total opposite. It was Jekyll and Hyde. And you never knew what you were going to get on any given day. It was bad physically, emotionally and psychologically. My mom would tear up the house, throw what we had in the yard, run up and down the street in a bathrobe and bang on the neighbor’s door.

We had to call the police all the time. My other siblings moved out as soon as they could, and it was just my younger sister and me, sometimes holding her bedroom door shut to keep her from coming out and inflicting harm on us. Because of that I grew up totally disengaged, battling depression in school, full of insecurities and all the problems that come with growing up in that type of environment.

Where does the empathy come from? I’ve always put myself in that other person’s shoes because I’ve seen all walks of life, from the millionaire to the homeless person, and I’ve experienced the generosity of both. I just never ever taken myself out of being that kid who was calling the police and looking for somebody to step up and help. I feel like if I was ever in position to make things better for someone to try to take away a little bit of their pain, then I was going to do that.

ALXnow: How do you deal with depression? Do you still?

Lawhorne: One word — Linda. Since I met her in 1977, she has been the person who has kept me focused and helps navigate the things that keep me down. I am lucky to have married the perfect partner. It’s important to have that when you lead with your heart.

ALXnow: Do you lead with your heart? 

Lawhorne: Yes. It’s a lot harder than leading with your brain.

ALXnow: What do you mean?

Lawhorne: If you lead with your brain you’re a very linear thinker. You know, if you goof up once you’re out. That sort of thing. I’m more tolerant of my staff than most in my position. I believe in second and third chances, when warranted. I believe in giving people opportunities, proper training, and development coaching to make them successful, and even that process can be very painful.

I like to give people a chance, but if they don’t take the opportunity and do something again, they’re out. But that’s hard to do. One of the hardest things that I’ve had to do over the last 16 years is balance the person and who they are and what’s going on with them, especially on a personal level, with the responsibilities of their offices.

ALXnow: What’s the plan after you leave office?

Lawhorne: I actually formed an LLC. It’s called Dana Lawhorne and Associates. You like that?

ALXnow: What are you going to be doing?

Lawhorne: Just helping people and businesses navigate problems at City Hall. It can be a small business or a neighborhood that can’t quite figure out how to get something done because they’re caught up in red tape. You know, folks pay attorney lots of money for the services I’m going to be offering. I can do it for way less, for, let’s say a cheeseburger.

ALXnow: Don’t you want to get paid for your work?

Lawhorne: To me, making money is not my goal. I do not need to do that. I worked 43 years with the city government, and if I can’t retire comfortably then I’ve done something wrong.

ALXnow: How does the incoming city leadership look to you?

Lawhorne: I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and I believe that with the new city manager and the energy from this new council is going to get us results. This status quo philosophy must change, and I believe now we’re going to move in a different direction, because the the priorities the residents, the priorities of our community will focused on, ahead of the priorities of others.

ALXnow: Would you be more effective as a problem solver outside of power?

Lawhorne: Yes. The biggest promise city hall has is loving to put labels on people. Dana is a troublemaker.

I go to the meetings and I listen to the community. Why does it take me 40 minutes to go from the 600 block of Russell Road to King Street, to go six blocks? It’s just the most frustrating thing I’ve ever seen in my life. In my office, I try to help people, not turn them away. I don’t get this. We’ll spend more time trying to figure out how not to do something.

A 22-second green light backed up Russell Road for years. We all suffered years of asking the city to change it, and nobody would put it up for discussion. I tried with the Traffic and Parking Board three times. Why couldn’t we have a 30-second light like everybody else? One time I went to see a dear friend of mine who was dying. Her last few days on this earth and her sister said she couldn’t go pick her up some prescription drugs because of the traffic backup on Russell. I mean, come on.

ALXnow: Are you going to miss the inmates of the jail?

Lawhorne: Yes. I grew up understanding what sobriety can do for an individual and their families. I always told them that crime isn’t just about them and their victims, it’s about their families. Their families are suffering as much as they are for their mistake.

I never had a foundation of education. That’s always been my Kryptonite. I am not proud of this, but I stopped learning in the seventh grade. The wheels fell off in my life. I’ve tried to teach them the importance of sobriety, education and transitioning to a better place.

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