Newsletter

Alexandria will start interviewing candidates next month to independently review allegations of police misconduct, according to City Manager Jim Parajon.

It’s been more than five months since the Alexandria Community Policing Review Board started meeting to provide oversight of the Alexandria Police Department. The seven-person Board was appointed by City Council last year, started meeting in January, and is still developing its bylaws.

It’s also been nearly a year since Council’s order to form the group went into effect — on July 1, 2021.

The Board is unable to function properly, however, without hiring an independent auditor/investigator to hire staff, conduct investigations and coordinate the Board’s administrative functions.

“We will be conducting interviews for prospective candidates later in July,” City Manager Jim Parajon told ALXnow. “This is an important and somewhat unique position, and our search firm has been seeking the best candidates for the past couple months and now we are moving to the next phase which is the interview process.”

The City is using recruitment firm POLIHIRE to find auditor candidates. This is the same recruitment firm that was used to hire Parajon as City Manager late last year.

The job pays between $106,845 and $193,631, according to POLIHIRE. The job announcement was posted on the site on April 7.

Additionally, the Board is not posting videos of its public meetings, although the City ordinance establishing it states: “All public meetings of the Board shall be videotaped and made available to the public on the City’s website.”

The Board was approved by Council in response to social unrest from the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. After the murder, former Alexandra Police Chief Mike Brown and APD officers participated in protests around the city calling for racial accountability in policing.

The creation of the board also received pushback from police during the approval process.

A June 22 meeting establishing the bylaws for the group was canceled, and the next Board meeting is at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 6, in City Hall’s Sister City Conference Room.

The full job posting for the position is below the jump.

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Rain barrel (photo via Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash)

The City of Alexandria has a handful of irons in the fire when it comes to stormwater management, but one new approach is one of the oldest tactics: storing runoff in rain barrels.

The city announced yesterday that it’s planning to offer a limited supply of free rain barrels, with more available via raffle at the city libraries.

“The City of Alexandria Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES) Stormwater Management Division will be offering a limited supply of free rain barrels to residents living in the City,” the city said in a release. “Complete the application form by July 31 to register for a free rain barrel. Additionally, a limited number of rain barrels will be reserved for raffles at each of the four library branch locations in the City.”

Those hoping to get a rain barrel must be city residents and have to demonstrate how and where the barrel will be used — presumably to collect rainwater.

“The City encourages the use of rain barrels which capture and store runoff from roofs that would otherwise be directed into the storm sewer network,” the release said.

The city said additional benefits include collecting water to use in gardening and the user is eligible for a credit towards the stormwater utility fee for installation and proper use of a rain barrel — the latter incentive is particularly relevant with stormwater utility fees going up this year.

“This program is in partnership with the Northern Virginia Rain Barrel Partnership Program, sponsored through the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District,” the release said. “The Partnership hosts build-your-own rain barrel workshops throughout the Northern Virginia area.”

Photo via Waldemar Brandt/Unsplash

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Supreme Court (file photo)

The Alexandria City Council will vote on a resolution Tuesday night to protect access to abortions in the city.

The resolution, which was initially drafted by Councilman Kirk McPike, lays out several steps that the city will take.

“We call upon the General Assembly of Virginia and the United States Congress to take such actions as may be necessary to protect the right to abortion in Virginia,” the resolutions states. “We ask that the City Manager consider budgetary proposals for the FY 2024 budget to ensure accessibility of reproductive health services, safe abortion services, accessible maternal and child health services for low-income Alexandria residents.”

The resolution also calls on the City Attorney to join on-going or future lawsuits “to protect the availability of abortion services in Alexandria,” as well as land use protections for providers.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wadebanning abortion in 14 states and setting the stage for future legal challenges countrywide. Here in Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced that he wants to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The Alexandria Democratic Committee praised the resolution.

“The Alexandria Democratic Committee stands in solidarity with City Council as they present their resolution in response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade,” ADC said on Facebook. “Our public support of bold statements like these is crucial.”

Many of Alexandria’s elected officials expressed shock and dismay at the ruling.

Del. Charniele Herring, the Democratic Caucus Chair, tweeted that she was horrified and that she would continue to fight to keep abortion legal in Virginia.

The full resolution is below the jump. Read More

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Five years after the City Council struck down a plan to get a Business Improvement District (BID) up and running in Old Town, a discussion of BID frameworks is coming back to the city.

While the city earlier rejected the idea of a BID in Old Town, BID advocates managed to get the concept approved as part of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Approval of guidelines for the creation and management of a BID is scheduled for the upcoming Tuesday, June 28 City Council meeting (item 16).

“Earlier this year, City Council adopted their calendar year 2022 priorities, which included COVID-19 pandemic recovery: Identifying policies, practices and resources needed to ensure a resilient and equitable recovery for all residents and businesses,” staff wrote in the city docket. “Aligned with that priority, staff has created guidelines for City Council’s adoption that outlines how interested business communities, or proponent groups, can propose the formation of a Business Improvement District (BID).”

Back in 2017, some local business leaders and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) spearheaded an effort to get a BID approved for Old Town, but they struggled to gain traction with business owners along King Street who balked at the idea of an additional tax for already struggling businesses.

The upcoming City Council meeting won’t be to approve the creation of any such BID, but will entail looking again at the guidelines for how a businesses in a commercial area can petition to create one.

“Groups of businesses in the City have expressed interest in exploring this tool as part of recovery efforts, and in recent years, the City has encouraged or required the formation of BIDs in new development areas,” the docket said. “The guidelines provide the framework and instructions for these groups to request BID formation — with the ultimate decision on formation determined by City Council on an application-by-application basis.”

The guidelines include a ten-step process, from informing the City that a BID is being considered through to tax ordinances and BID operations.

The item is scheduled just before “2022 City Council Priorities, Housing and COVID-19 Recovery Business Plans” on the docket, which at time of writing consist of blank placeholder pages.

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A proposal that could push the city’s skyline even higher in exchange for more affordable housing is headed to the Planning Commission this week ahead of City Council review early next month.

Leveraging additional height and density in exchange for affordable housing is one of the city’s main tools for getting the private sector to supply more affordable housing. Currently, however, that trade is limited to areas of the city where the maximum height is set upwards of 50 feet.

“The existing Bonus Height regulations allow for a maximum of 25 feet of Bonus Height to be granted to projects providing low- and moderate-income housing units at a number equivalent to at least one-third of the total increase achieved by the bonus, or a contribution to the City’s Housing Trust Fund in an amount equivalent to the value of the units that would have been provided,” the staff report said, “but only in zones or Height Districts with a height maximum of more than 50 feet.”

The report said there are several zones where additional height would be architecturally appropriate, but where the bonus height trade is prohibited because the maximum height is set at 50 feet or below.

A staff report said three options were considered, but the one ultimately are recommending that achievable height bonus stay capped at 25 feet of bonus height, but lowering the height maximum of zones for which it could be applied. In layman’s terms: the overall height won’t go up, but that trade will be applicable to more parts of the city.

The report includes some public feedback, including concerns about how the height change could negatively impact Alexandria’s historic neighborhoods.

“The primary activity of this commission is to acquire easements on open spaces, historic interiors and facades as well as, to protect the fabric of historic structures in general,” the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Committee wrote in a letter. “We feel that a blanket change of zoning areas presently limited to 50′ and 45′ heights would be harmful to the work of this commission and ultimately to our historic heritage.”

The letter said concerns about the new change include taller buildings reducing the perception of privacy in residential yards, the possibility that the change could drive further development on the open spaces of historic properties, and that it would add more traffic.

“This zoning change has the potential to increase traffic and noise that could encourage owners to further alter historic properties in an attempt to moderate these effects, reducing their likelihood of considering historic easements,” the letter said. “Most importantly, larger buildings will visually dominate our small historic structures and change the character of the area to such an extent that the historic value of preserving the history of our surviving buildings and open spaces may be lost on an already reluctant applicant.”

The letter said the overall concern is that the change would dramatically change the character of historic districts like Old Town.

“Towering buildings that transform our streetscape will be alien to our residents and make it harder for visitors to visually and mentally transport themselves back in time,” the letter said. “The authenticity of the historic districts of Alexandria make our city a uniquely desirable place to live, work and visit. Let’s not destroy our precious heritage. We urge the members of City Council to protect our historic districts by maintaining current height limits in the historic districts.”

Danny Smith, chair of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, wrote a four-page letter pointing out areas of the proposed policy that are vague or ambiguous and listed the historic sites that could neighbor sites with increased height.

“All of these historic resources, and their collective importance to Alexandria’s heritage, its character, its economy and its attraction of visitors from across the nation and worldwide would be jeopardized by the adoption of a 70-75′ height limit in and near the Historic Districts,” Smith wrote, “such a proposal should not be countenanced.”

Smith wrote that while affordable housing was a priority, the city shouldn’t neglect the role of tourism to the city’s economy.

“Based on public briefings to date, we must convey our strong concerns about allowing buildings in and near our historic districts and other historic resources to exceed the current, established limits for any reason,” Smith wrote.

The new regulations would only change that maximum height zone by five feet, taking that from 50 feet down to 45 feet, but that opens up large swaths of the city to that trade — including much of Old Town.  A map in a city report showed the areas covered under the new ordinance and ranked the likelihood that the additional height could be applied.

Despite most of Old Town being theoretically covered, the city report said it was unlikely to be applied to most of Old Town, but was likely to be applied to development along King Street and the Waterfront.

A map of where in Alexandria additional height is likely to be traded for affordable housing units, image via City of Alexandria

There are additional regulations at play that might keep the bonus height trade from being utilized in some development. For example, according to the report:

The current proposal would also formally prohibit Bonus Height from being used in relation to single-family, two-family, or townhouse dwelling types. In doing so, staff aims to further prevent the use of Bonus Height in areas of the City and in building typologies where additional height would not be appropriate.

The change is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission for review on Thursday, June 23, then to the City Council on Tuesday, July 5.

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Mayor Justin Wilson says its time to take a step back and reassess Alexandria’s approach to student safety.

In a joint City Council meeting with the School Board on Monday night (June 13), Wilson said that the community needs to be educated on how the city and school system plan to make schools safer.

“I do think part of this conversation is to step back, because I don’t think there’s many communities around the country that invest the amount that we do in the very ways that we do in our kids, and clearly we still have kids slipping through the cracks in this institution. That’s sobering for us all.”

Wilson and Gaskins presented the Board with a draft memo that will start a “rigorous engagement” program to talk with youth and parents to “learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act.”

Wilson said that it’s been an interesting last several weeks since the fatal stabbing of Alexandria City High School Senior Luis Mejia Hernandez on May 24. He also said that there is no one single solution, but that a coordinated approach on improving students safety is about creating a public process and approach to solving the issue.

“I don’t mean to be negative on this, but I’m doubtful that in this effort we will determine some kind of magic thing that we have never thought of,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’ll have anything like that. But I think it’ll be a conversation around how we provide services, scale, scope, how we target things, and where the need is, and I hope that as we have that conversation, we’ll learn more about the effectiveness of what we do today, rather than unnecessarily (try) dramatically new things.”

Council will discuss the memo at its meeting tonight (June 14).

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., who announced his resignation last Friday, did not attend the meeting, and is out of the office until June 21.

Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that the Board needs to improve its efforts to inform to community on ACPS activities.

“I agree,” Alderton said. “I do think we need to do a better job as a Board of educating the community about what actually happens in our schools, because I think that could also shift the conversation. People are making guesses all the time. It becomes counterproductive to what we’re actually trying to do. I second that 100%. I think that there’s an educational component to all of this, so that people just know what’s happening.”

Gaskins said that the memo does not specifically outline City departments for certain projects, since it is the duty of the city and its multiple departments to work collaboratively. She also wants there to be a student summit at some point in the near future to discuss coping with the pandemic and violence-related traumas.

“I think it really is a starting point and call to action to give space for us to listen to our young people, hear what they have to say, be able to evaluate what we’re doing, identify the things that we’re not doing and then put in place a plan that we are holding ourselves accountable to,” Gaskins said at the meeting. “I think this is really an opportunity to think about: How do we activate multiple departments? How do we activate and normalize every resource we have available to ensure the health and safety of our young people?”

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi said he would do everything to help Council in the effort.

“Politicians and and leaders are looked at as good ones when they can articulate and speak, but we really need some time for people how much we should be listening as well,” Elnoubi said. “Thank you so much for doing this. I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”

Former Sheriff Dana Lawhorne watched the meeting from home.

“I’m glad that our City Council and School Board had a robust discussion tonight about the safety and wellbeing of our youth,” Lawhorne said. “I’m encouraged by the plan put forward by Councilwoman Gaskins and Mayor Wilson. We all need to do our part to support it.”

According to a school safety report released in March, 18 ACPS students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, in addition to 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray. Students also filmed dozens of fights and posted them on social media.

At tonight’s meeting, Council will also consider designating former School Board Member Chris Lewis as its designee to the proposed 16-person School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group. That group will make a recommendation this fall to the interim-Superintendent (or new Superintendent) on the future role of school resource officers at Alexandria City High School and Francis C. Hammond and George Washington Middle Schools.

Separately, Council will also consider passing a gun violence prevention resolution, which encourages the school system to “review school curriculum, safety protocols, and professional development” related to gun safety and suicide prevention, as well as the scheduling of School Board work sessions before the start of the 2022-2023 school year to review those measures.

According to the memo:

In the short-term the Alexandria Police Department will continue its work to investigate recent acts of violence and provide appropriate security interventions to make future acts of violence less likely. To sustainably support the resiliency of our youth and prevent violence, we need to listen as much as we talk. We must engage a diverse range of stakeholders to listen to the experiences of our young people and center their voices, learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act. With this rigorous engagement, we can design and refine the systems and reforms required to:

  • Address youth trauma and mental health
  • Coordinate across sectors to identify challenges, needs, and opportunities
  • Develop sustainable strategies to align services and existing initiatives
  • Identify metrics and transparent processes to hold ourselves accountable
  • Target investments at identified gaps
  • Prioritize equity
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June is tracking to be one of the worst months this year for new Covid cases in Alexandria.

As of Monday (June 13), reported cases reached 35,638 — with 597 new cases since this time last week, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

There were 1,133 new cases reported in the first 13 days in June.

January saw the most new cases, with 12,822 reported, followed by 2,900 cases in May, 1,488 cases in April, 1,227 cases in February and 593 cases in March.

The death toll remains at 189. The seven-day average of new cases is 85.3, breaking a three-week downward streak. The seven-day average last week was 83.9, and a month ago it reached 199.4.

The number of deaths remains at 189, although for two weeks starting June 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics has not updated its list of fatalities for “coding purposes,” according to VDH.

The seven-day positivity rate for Covid tests dropped modestly to 16.4%, down from is 17% last week.

In Alexandria City Public Schools, there have been 1,221 cases reported since Dec. 1. Of those, 1,032 are children and 209 are staff, but the numbers on the school system’s dashboard don’t add up.

Alexandria currently has a Medium community level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the numbers, the City Council will allow the two-and-a-half-year-long state of emergency to expire on June 30.

The Alexandria Health Department’s last update was on May 20, to announce the availability of booster shots for kids ages five to 11.

VDH reported the following new cases this month in Alexandria:

  • 77 new cases on June 13
  • 78 new cases on June 12
  • 90 new cases on June 11
  • 91 new cases on June 10
  • 82 new cases on June 9
  • 108 new cases on June 8
  • 71 new cases on June 7
  • 70 new cases on June 6
  • 87 new cases on June 5
  • 85 new cases on June 4
  • 93 new cases on June 3
  • 138 new cases on June 2
  • 63 new cases on June 1

Vaccine Update

  • There are 22,198 unvaccinated Alexandria residents
  • About 78% of residents (119,606 people) are fully vaccinated
  • 86% (131,682 people) of residents got at least one dose
  • 65,101 residents got booster shots
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(Updated 5 p.m.) Next week, the City Council will review a set of new parking rates (Item 19) for Old Town that aim to push drivers off the street and into the city’s underutilized garages.

The new ordinance would expand the area of Old Town where drivers who don’t have residential or guest permits must pay by phone to park. The current rate in those zones is currently $1.75 per hour, but the new ordinance would allow the Director of Transportation and Environmental Services to set a rate of up to $5 per hour.

One of the changes being considered would adjust rates based on times of day or day of the week. Rates would also be higher in the pay-by-phone zones to push drivers to meters or the garages. At the same time, garages could be changed to an hourly rate less than the rate at the meter — still $1.75 — with different rates at different garages.

The core issue behind the change is that the city’s parking garages are largely underutilized. The average occupancy sits at around half the garage capacity.

City of Alexandria parking garage utilization in calendar year 2021 (image via City of Alexandria)

The spike in December is the Scottish Walk and Boat Parade, with before and after for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

A city report said that the Courthouse Garage, in particular, has “a lot of capacity” on evenings and weekends.

The item is scheduled for first reading at the Tuesday, June 14 meeting, followed by a public hearing and a vote on Saturday, June 18.

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Lynhaven Drive (image via Google Maps)

If you’ve been grumbling about potholes in Alexandria’s northern neighborhoods, there’s good news: relief is on the way.

The City of Alexandria released the lineup for upcoming street repaving and the list of prioritized streets is a whose-who of northern Alexandria residential avenues.

According to the release, the first two weeks of repaving will hit:

  • Lynhaven Drive (from Wilson Avenue to End)
  • Evans Lane (Richmond Highway to East Reed Avenue)
  • Montrose Avenue (from East Raymond Avenue to Richmond Highway)
  • Terrett Avenue (from East Mt Ida to East Randolph Avenue)
  • Stewart Avenue (from Mount Vernon Avenue to East Randolph Avenue)
  • Executive Avenue (from Kentucky Avenue to Mount Vernon Avenue)
  • Alabama Avenue (from Kentucky Avenue to Carolina Place)

The release said that residents on those streets will receive advance notice of paving through project signs and/or letters, with temporary “no parking” signs posted. The release warned that the affected streets will have limited access during repaving, but local traffic will be able to pass through and access driveways.

“City staff will be on site managing the project, and at the end of each workday, roads will be fully open to allow for overnight parking and traffic,” the release said.

Image via Google Maps

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Alexandria Police Chief Don Hayes thinks police need to stay in Alexandria City Public Schools — at least for now.

Hayes spoke with ALXnow in his office before the fatal stabbing of Alexandria City High School senior Luis Mejia Hernandez, and also before APD announced last week that due to short-staffing that it is reducing its services to the community. Officers will no longer respond to calls for service that fall under another agency’s responsibility or respond to old crime scenes that show no danger to the public.

“I think they’re needed now,” Hayes told ALXnow — on needing officers in schools. “My hope would be one day we won’t be needed, that we won’t have to go to the schools, and that will be great. I think that’s what they’re working towards, as far as putting this community advisory group together, and figuring out what can they do better to deal with all the safety issues that they might be having in the schools. We’re willing to help them with that so that one day we don’t have to have SROs in the schools, and they can be taken out of the schools and be back out in the neighborhoods, and we can really continue to do our community policing part.”

Hayes wants school resource officers will be returning to Alexandria City High School’s two campuses next school year. SROs have not been at the ACHS King Street Campus after two officers were placed on leave and are still under investigation for allegedly having inappropriate sexual conversations with a former student.

SROs were briefly defunded by City Council last year, and then brought back after student fights and multiple violent events with weapons prompted ACPS leadership to successfully plead for their return.

Hayes’ office is still relatively sparse, with his desk and walls sparingly adorned by photos of his family, as well as recognitions from the city for decades of service. He has even changed rank insignias as a personal preference — wearing colonel eagles instead of the four stars traditionally worn by chiefs.

In the meantime, Alexandria is experiencing a rise in larcenies and thefts this year, and there have been four homicides.

Hayes was officially sworn into office last month after being the acting-chief for a year. He plans on shifting the department to what it looked like before it was restructured under his predecessor, former Chief Michael Brown, who resigned abruptly last year, by hiring an additional assistant chief.

The job has also meant some personal changes for Hayes. He was forced to hang up his role as the pastor at Oakland Baptist Church, where he sermonized for 15 years.

Hayes is married with two adult children, and has lived in the city for 30 years. A native of Washington, D.C., Hayes followed his older brother Clarence into the U.S. Air Force, where he became a military police officer. After being discharged and returning home four years later, he kept on a uniform by joining the Alexandria Police Department in March of 1981. He has a degree in business and finance from Norfolk State University, a Master’s degree in management and leadership from Johns Hopkins University and a Master’s in divinity from Liberty University.

ALXnow: What is your position on policing in schools?

Hayes: I think they’re needed now. My hope would be one day we won’t be needed, that we won’t have to go to the schools, and that will be great. I think that’s what they’re working towards, as far as putting this community advisory group together, and figuring out what can they do better to deal with all the safety issues that they might be having in the schools. We’re willing to help them with that so that one day we don’t have to have SROs in the schools, and they can be taken out of the schools and be back out in the neighborhoods, and we can really continue to do our community policing part.

ALXnow: How is the pandemic affecting the department right now?

Hayes: We are trying as best we can not to go backwards. The majority of the staff have taken advantage of the vaccinations. The other ones are going with the city protocol, as far as being tested, on a weekly basis, if they have not been vaccinated. We haven’t seen an uptick in any of our COVID cases. We might have maybe one a week. The hard challenge is you don’t know when it was contracted. You don’t know if it happened while you’re on the job, at home. There’s no way of knowing, but the officers are still taking the precautionary measures that they’ve always taken as far as keeping the distance when they go on calls for service.

ALXnow: APD has one assistant chief and one assistant director. Leadership at the department was condensed under Chief Brown. Do you plan on continuing with the structure as-is or reverting to a more familiar structure, like hiring another assistant chief?

Hayes: I can say without hesitation that I’m looking to go back to a more familiar structure. We can’t have deputies at an assistant chief level that could run bureaus that we need to have in order to ensure we have the appropriate accountability to make sure that we’re the most efficient and effective police department that we have.

ALXnow: Is it difficult to run the show under the current structure?

Hayes: It is very difficult. I mean, I did it. I was the assistant chief over top of criminal investigations, and patrol. And I wouldn’t be here some days at eight o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t leave until about 10 o’clock at night. And that was on a daily basis because there was so much you have to do.

ALXnow: How is the city doing with assaults by mob and gang violence?

Hayes: We’re seeing more assault by mob incidents. It could be five people that jump on one person, as opposed to the gangs that we know exist throughout this entire Northern Virginia area coming in with specific targets, the ones we’re looking at now.

A lot of times they are crimes of opportunity. They’ll see you walking down the street by yourself. And it will be five guys, and talk to the guy, or whatever, and (they will) say, ‘Look, can you give us whatever,’ and they will assault the person, because sometimes people resist and things like that. So, we don’t associate it all with gangs, it’s just people taking advantage of what they see as an opportunity.

ALXnow: Minors? 

Hayes: A lot of them, yes. When I say minors, I mean 18 and under.

ALXnow: Is there any kind of a plan to put SROs back into Alexandria City High School?

Hayes: Well, we have to because in the upcoming budget, they have put the staffing back in there. And so we have to now do a process to get officers who want to go into the schools, and then send them to school to be trained, so that we can have them ready, hopefully for the next school year.

ALXnow: How do you and your officers feel about the rollout of body worn cameras this summer?

Hayes: I can tell you that the officers want them… They really want the cameras, they’ve been wanting them for a long time. For the city manager to be able to find the funds to do this is fantastic.

ALXnow: You’re a pastor. Are there any passages of The Bible that come to mind for you?

Hayes: Yes. Galatians 220: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.’ I live by that because he gave himself for me. Now I give myself for others.

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