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.
Over the last decade, Alexandria’s jail has been getting a little less crowded.
Since 2011, the average population at the William Truesdale Adult Detention has generally trended downward. Even pre-COVID there was an 18% population decrease since 2011, which only became more pronounced during the pandemic. In 2011, the average daily population in the Alexandria jail was 430. In 2019 it was 352. This year it’s 277.
Alexandria isn’t alone in this. Nationwide, the incarceration rate has been on the decline since peaking around 2008, according to Pew Research. In Fairfax County, the jail population has nearly halved sine 2010.
Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter said that, beyond the national trend, some of that decline comes from a local move away from incarceration as the primary response to conviction. Porter said at his office that the emphasis has been on mental health treatment and substance abuse court to decrease the number of people in jail for property crimes and non-violent offenses.
“I also think you have to give some credit, how much I don’t know, to the fact that in Alexandria we have tried to put more emphasis on addressing the root problems of crime,” Porter said. “The Alexandria Jail is known for the programs of people housed there, like GED and substance abuse programs to give them the tools to reduce recidivism.”
Porter said both state-wide prison populations and local jail populations have been gradually trending downward for inmates with non-violent charges or convictions. Overall crime has been declining as well, though Porter acknowledged that violent crime has been increasing.
“Over the past 12-24 months nationwide there has been an uptick in violent offenses,” Porter said, “and I think [locally] we’ve seen that we’ve had some increase in firearm incidents.”
Sheriff-elect Captain Sean Casey said some of the jail population decreases could be credited to legislative changes.
“The legislature has made legal changes over the years that deal with criminal justice reform,” Casey said. “There’s been bond reforms, so more people are getting bonds and getting out, rather than just sitting in jail. If more people are getting out on bond, that’s fewer people (who) are in here.”
Casey said those changes have reduced the number of inmates in jail for larceny or drug charges.
Porter is a little more skeptical that state-level changes have impacted the local jail population.
“At least locally, state changes haven’t had as much of an impact, because my office has historically been ahead of the curve on these issues,” Porter said. “For instance, even though larceny threshold remained $200 until 2020 or 2019, we had upped it internally and were not prosecuting thefts for less than that as felonies. Same thing with drug possession. Simple possession: we’ve always been really keen to get those cases diverted or treated as misdemeanors. But the reality for marijuana was no one was going to jail for simple possession. I don’t think statewide changes really have had much of an impact on the jail population locally.” Read More
Hundreds of people turned out for the lighting of the menorah and Christmas tree at Pat Miller Square in Del Ray on Sunday night, December 5.
The evening was full of families and friends caroling with hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Retiring Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne made the countdown to light the 30-foot-tall tree.
“Thank you for 43 years of supporting me,” Lawhorne said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Last year’s public tree lighting was canceled by the pandemic, and the event was a little smaller than in years past. Santa Claus, for instance, made a drive-by appearance, but was unable to stop for photos due to his busy schedule.
The Alexandria City Council will likely hire the next city manager before the end of the year, and next week the city will hold a hybrid town hall on the “qualities and values” the next manager should possess.
After six years as the highest-ranking government employee in Alexandria, City Manager Mark Jinks hinted to ALXnow in May that he was going to retire, and then made it official a month later. The city is currently undergoing a national search for his replacement.
The town hall will be held in-person at City Hall at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22. Residents can also fill out an online survey.
In his award-winning poem “I Cry”, Anthony Talbert laments over being incarcerated in the Alexandria Jail.
“Growing up I was told that the eyes are the windows to the soul,” reads Talbert’s poem. “So I cry to cleanse my soul of all the torment it holds.”
The Alexandria Jail gives inmates a lot of time for abstract thought, and this week virtual awards were presented to their best writers in the third-ever creative writing contest. Thirteen participants, who ended up submitting 24 pieces of work, had a month to create a new piece of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
The judges for the contest were Mary Wadland, publisher of The Zebra Press, historian Char McCargo Bah, and Wendi Kaplan, the former poet laureate for Alexandria.
“We are extremely grateful for Heard’s continued outreach and engagement with those in our custody,” said Sheriff Dana Lawhorne. “Not only does the contest provide them with a creative outlet to express themselves, but it gives them the chance to have their voices carry out into the community and beyond.”
Awards were presented to the following inmates:
- First Place — Anthony Talbert for “I Cry”
- Second Place — William Walsh for “Why Did You Leave?”
- Third Place — S. Amir for “The Most Beautiful Battle”
- First Place — Michael Pixley for “The Claw”
- First Place (tie) — D. Miller for “Mental Love”
- Second Place — D. Miller for “The Moment I Fell”
- First Place — “Guatemala” by Anonymous
- Second Place — S. Amir for “Despised and Rejected”
- Third Place — Peter Le for “Love Letter”
The winning poetry entry is below the jump.
What a week in Alexandria.
Public uproar over Sunday’s flooding spilled out throughout this week, which continued to be threatened by near-daily flash flood advisories from the National Weather Service.
Our top story was on Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, who criticized City Manager Mark Jinks on the city’s stormwater infrastructure. Mayor Justin Wilson says that multiple projects are underway and take time, and that the city is now looking into whether spot improvements and any other projects can be accelerated.
The group DrainALX has also gained popularity, as it continues to catalog stormwater issues and complaints. One Del Ray resident even told us that she’s turned to therapy after repeatedly spending thousands on a continually ruined basement.
Our weekly poll also found 55% of respondents (193 people) have experienced flood damage to their homes, 14% (74 people) have experienced other sorts of property damage and 31% (159 votes) have never had any property damaged by a storm in the city.
This weekend’s forecast is partly cloudy with a 50% chance of scattered thunderstorms on Saturday afternoon, followed by a 40% chance of thunderstorms Sunday night.
The week before school starts, the School Board unanimously approved Thursday night the requirement that ACPS staffers get the coronavirus vaccine.
“We do have authority to require testing and require vaccinations,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said at the board meeting. “However, there have been no cases where someone has contested that requirement. That has not occurred as of yet, and I’m sure it’s going to begin soon…”
In the meantime, Alexandria is also prepping COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees.
- Alexandria Fire Department rescued several people Sunday, weekly forecast looks stormy
- New census shows Alexandria not majority-white
- Olympic boxer Troy Isley welcomed back to Alexandria
- Mayor Wilson talks flooding, vaccine requirements, and Arlington gondola with WAMU
- Man arrested for domestic violence, pointing gun at wife’s head in Del Ray
- Alexandria kicks off Restaurant Week
- Evolving COVID-19 decisions loom as Alexandria City Public Schools fully reopen next Tuesday
- With high transmission levels, Alexandria says third COVID vaccine dose is available for severely immunocompromised residents
- Alexandria Tutoring Consortium launches $25K fundraiser to expand virtual reading program for young kids
- Barricade situation in Landmark area ends in arrest
- As Alexandria looks to accelerate stormwater projects, Sheriff gives city manager a D-
- The Four Mile Run Bridge in Arlandria will not fully reopen until fall 2025
- Institute for Defense Analyses announces Potomac Yard move-in later this year
- Woman behind DrainALX campaign shares frustrations and hopes from locals after Sunday flood
- HUD Secretary Fudge visits Alexandria, says affordable housing is a Biden Administration priority
- New census shows Alexandria not majority-white
- Alexandria School Board to discuss mandatory vaccinations for staffers this week
- After rampant flooding over weekend, another Flash Flood Watch is in effect for Alexandria
- Poll: Have you gotten the infamous mite bite in Alexandria?
- Alexandria Fire Department struggling with staffing shortage and forced overtime
- Stuck in quandary, Del Ray flooding victim seeks therapy
Have a safe weekend!
Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne is fed up and says the city’s stormwater management is a disaster. On Sunday, Lawhorne said he was helping a neighbor in Del Ray pump water out of his basement until 4 a.m.
“It’s the same summer repeated over and over again,” Lawhorne told ALXnow. “I’ve got basement damage and my shed in the back is destroyed. Whenever we get a big storm you’ll see two-to-three feet of water rushing into the back alley and our house gets engulfed with floodwater. It’s not sanitary.”
Sunday’s storm dumped five inches of water on the city in less than an hour. The city’s stormwater system gets overrun after rainfall of about three inches.
Mayor Justin Wilson says city staff are looking into which stormwater projects can get fast-tracked, and that money is not the problem.
“We’re exploring ways to accelerate execution of the plan, but more money is not the most significant need,” Wilson told ALXnow. “I am heartbroken for the residents and businesses impacted by this flooding. No one should have to fear for their safety and financial well-being every time it rains. I wish we could implement all of these projects tomorrow, but unfortunately they take time. These are very significant projects. We are working to accelerate these efforts as quickly as possible, as well as identify other ways to reduce the impact on our residents.”
Lawhorne says that City Manager Mark Jinks is at fault for underfunding flooding projects for years, and that the city keeps reliving the same summer over and over. Last summer, for instance, there were several major storms that resulted in the doubling of the stormwater management fee for residents to tackle backups, most notably in Rosemont, Del Ray and Old Town.
“Why do we tolerate this?” Lawhorne said. “I give the City Manager a D- for his unwillingness to pay attention to this issue prior to 2020, until the stormwater system crumbled and there was the political will to do something. I’m glad they’re making improvements now, but their plan falls short of accomplishing what needs to be done sooner rather than later.”
Lawhorne continued, “We will continue to pay the price for the next 10 years, just as we saw this last weekend. It’s been a year since all that flooding last year and we haven’t moved the needle. Where’s the results? I’m not saying we have to get them overnight, but good grief.”
Council’s approval last year provided hundreds of millions of dollars toward flood mitigation. Additionally, the city plans to spend millions in American Rescue Plan Act funding on the Hoof’s Run Culvert and spot improvements.
City Councilman John Taylor Chapman has also asked staff to look into redirecting ARPA funding, as well as shifting resources to tackle the issue now.
“It’s a shame to see this over and over again,” Chapman said. “I completely understand the frustrations of residents impacted by small, medium and large storms. We need to adjust and take care of this crisis situation.”
Alexandria announced on Aug. 13, the day before the deluge, that it will accept applications for its new Flood Mitigation Pilot Grant Program on Monday, August 30. Property owner can get a 50% reimbursement (up to $5,000) for flood mitigation projects at their homes.
One resident said on NextDoor that she spent more than $16,000 on drainage systems in her yard last year.
“I know I’m not alone in being frustrated by our flooding and infrastructure issues in Alexandria,” the resident said. “The city of Alexandria NEEDS to address and fix our flooding problems now.”
Lawhorne says he gets frustrated when he hears officials call for patience.
“They say that it’s a 100-year storm, and that it’s just Mother Nature,” he said. “The people who say that must live at the top of the hill.”
TES Operations crews have been cleaning up from this weekend's storm. They will work 12-hour, 24/7 shifts this week. This ramped-up status will enable us to respond to any weather events this week (we are monitoring two Tropical Storms) while we continue clean up. pic.twitter.com/1oz35wNX9F
— Alexandria T&ES (@AlexandriaVATES) August 16, 2021
Mayor recommends residents try out slaughterhouse — “Excited to say hello to the DC Poultry Market on Colvin Street this afternoon. They’re now open and it’s wonderful to have a source for fresh, local, free-range chicken in our City. They’re open 7 days a week. Check them out!” [Facebook]
DASH unveils new 40-foot-long electric buses — “The Alexandria Transit Company DASH is committed to transitioning to an entire fleet of zero emissions vehicles. Today they moved closer to that goal with the debut of three new battery-powered electric buses.” [Zebra]
National Night Out is Tuesday night — “We look forward joining our public safety partners @AlexandriaVAFD & @AlexVASheriff to celebrate National Night Out next Tuesday, August 3. It’s a time to celebrate our community and work together to keep everyone safe & secure.” [Twitter]
Today’s weather — “Mainly sunny. High 83F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph… Partly cloudy skies during the evening will give way to cloudy skies overnight. Low near 65F. Winds NE at 5 to 10 mph.” [Weather.com]
New Job: Keyholder at FatFace — “We want you to train, develop and lead your crew to their full potential. Act as a brand ambassador, promoting the FatFace brand and culture to our customers through your team.” [Indeed]
What a hot week in Alexandria.
With temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, the week started with a power outage at a 17-story apartment building in Landmark area. The outage lasted five days and residents had to find accommodations until the building reopened Friday afternoon.
On the coronavirus front, Alexandria experienced a slight uptick, and the health department says unvaccinated residents account for a majority of new cases. There have been 39 new cases reported so far this month in the city, and 13 cases were reported on July 9. That was the biggest single-day jump since May 20, when 18 new cases were reported.
In school news, this week we spoke with Alexandria High School Principal Peter Balas, who said that his staff are ready to fully reopen for full-time in-person instruction when the 2021-2022 school year starts on August 24.
- Chef Justus Frank is focusing on family with Elo’s Italian Pop-Up in Del Ray
- Mayor pushes for state-level building safety reform after Florida disaster
- Bilingual Montessori prechool to open in Rosemont church
- RiverRenew construction throughout Old Town to start this fall
- ARHA documents outline affordable housing organization’s shift toward rental-assistance
- Alexandria Drive-In to be discontinued after ‘Shrek’ this weekend
- Hotel Indigo in Old Town seeks to open private garage to waterfront visitors
- Planning Commission to review turning Old Town parking garage into townhouses
- Former chef at ‘The Alexandrian’ opening new restaurant in Arlandria on Monday
- Developers eye Beauregard redevelopment with West End upgrades on the horizon
- New city health improvement plan aims to fix inequities
- Here’s the plan for Alexandria’s birthday celebration this weekend
- City Council approves massive high-rise project without affordable housing near Eisenhower Metro station
- ‘Call Your Mother Deli’ signs lease in Old Town
- Del. Mark Levine raises eyebrows with letter that passes buck on constituent service
- Shortened Alexandria Birthday celebration is still on for July 10
- Alexandria City High School is ready to reopen at full capacity next month, principal says
- School Board Member Jacinta Greene faces reelection, wants race relations taught in ACPS
- Tropical Storm Elsa’s dregs tear through southern Alexandria
- Poll: Do you agree with reallocation of school resource officer funding?
- West End high-rise apartment building evacuated after power outage
- The Alexandria Police, Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department all want raises
Have a safe weekend!
The annual community-building campaign brings the Alexandria Police Department, Fire Department, Sheriff’s Office and other City agencies into communities for cookouts as part of a nationwide crime and drug prevention effort.
Previous National Night Out events have brought McGruff the Crime Dog, Spider-Man and other celebrities to cookout locations, along with quick visits from elected officials and other city leaders.
The event was founded by the National Association of Town Watch in 1984. The celebration was postponed last year due to the pandemic, and now more than 20 Alexandria neighborhoods will host block parties, cookouts, and ice cream socials from 5 p.m to 9 p.m.