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Green Valley to see ramped up public safety efforts after months of resident advocacy

Still reeling from recent shootings, a Green Valley resident took the dais during Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting to ask the county and police for a plan to address public safety concerns.

Yordanos Woldai, co-founder of Green Valley Matters, a new resident group focused on public safety, says this plan should include regular police patrols and stepped up enforcement of illegal activities.

This includes crimes such as drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, urinating and selling drugs in public around the John Robinson, Jr. Town Square — crimes which she said are largely committed by people who do not live in the neighborhood.

“The illegal activities happen in the open, on a consistent basis, starting in the afternoon when children are walking home from Drew,” she said. “This continued policy of inaction and looking the other way is not only dangerous, but it is inequitable. Nowhere else in Arlington County is a residential neighborhood — within feet of an elementary school — subjected to open and persistent, illegal activities that go unaddressed, except in this mostly Black and brown community.”

Neighbors have been raising these and other quality of life issues for several months. While there have been small fixes, including temporary bathrooms, Woldai says residents have exhausted public engagement methods — signing petitions, attending meetings and sending letters and emails — with little to show for it.

“The lack of enforcement has made our neighborhood attractive to people who want to openly engage in illegal activities without any consequence,” she said, tying these to more serious crimes Green Valley has witnessed.

The neighborhood has logged a number shots fired calls in recent years, including two in the summer of 2021two in 2022 and this year so far, four in 2023. That’s in addition to several shootings, including one on Dec. 9.

It is a nuanced issue but, ultimately, residents want equitable policing that reduces crime and makes their community safer, says Arlington County’s Independent Policing Auditor, Mummi Ibrahim.

She says the county’s Community Oversight Board, which reviews public complaints of officer behavior, can help ensure this happens. Right now, she is focused on understanding what has been done so far.

“In my opinion, the best way a police department can strike this balance is to engage with the community as partners,” Ibrahim said. “This means actively listening and being guided by community in learning what is needed to address the problems, and to continue consulting with the community when determining the police department’s response to ensure police actions are properly measured, effective and equitable.”

Woldai agrees. In a follow up communique to the County Board after her remarks, she stressed the community wants “a middle ground between the current policy of inaction and over-aggressive police tactics,” not “a militarized police state.”

When residents came to the County Board this spring, decrying similar problems, County Manager Mark Schwartz said he would have a few recommendations for new technology, like gunshot detection, by the summer. He said adding patrols would be difficult — given vacancies within ACPD — but remains an option.

Seven months later, Schwartz said ACPD will be adding those patrol officers.

“You should start seeing visible Arlington County police presence, not just a cruiser, I’m talking about police officer or officers on foot starting this coming week,” the County Manager said.

Schwartz said he has also authorized Police Chief Andy Penn to purchase a gunshot detection device. ACPD told ARLnow today that these technologies are being considered across county agencies but none have been purchased yet.

“The Arlington County Police Department remains committed to our key initiatives of crime prevention and control, transportation safety, and community engagement as we continue to work with all stakeholders in the Green Valley community to address public safety concerns and identify solutions,” the department said in a statement.

Schwartz said ACPD will also deploy portable cameras with a license plate reader function around the town square and elsewhere in the neighborhood once the county wraps up their purchase, using $80,000 in closeout funds.

This spring, County Board members told residents something needed to be done but the Valley would have to ed overcome differences of opinion on policing — all while not trampling on the neighborhood’s hangout culture.

Then, a month after this meeting, police investigated a shots fired call, followed by a shooting. Police recently announced arrests for the Dec. 2 shots fired call and Dec. 9 shooting. Three young men, 18-21, are being held without bond in the Arlington County jail in connection with the incidents.

Fast forward to last weekend, and Board members had more urgent reflections on safety.

Adding the caveat that shootings in Arlington are at historical averages, and greater investments and policy change do not guarantee a reduction in crime, Board Chair Christian Dorsey said public safety in Green Valley concerns every member of the Board.

“Our responsibility is to be able to look everyone in the face who lives in Green Valley and say, ‘We’ve done everything that we could,’ and that’s the responsibility that I don’t think that we have met to this moment,” he said.

Board Vice-Chair Libby Garvey, who previously stressed the need for greater public education on safety-related topics this summer, says that this has been tried and “clearly is not enough.”

“We really do want to make this area attractive for the folks who live there and people who want to come and engage positively,” she said. “We don’t want to make it attractive to folks from the outside to come in and do things that are not healthy and not good for the community.”

Board member Takis Karantonis said work remains to be done to make Green Valley “safe by design.”

“One thing that I’m missing in this conversation continuously — and I’ve had this conversation with neighbors in Green Valley many times — is the economic development aspect,” he said. “If you have a shop, a store, a bistro, a restaurant that works properly, you have eyes on the street, you have an active community that is all the time engaging naturally with the people who are on the street and may not be from the neighborhood.”

Schwartz mentioned other safety design elements under consideration. Arlington Public Schools and the Depts. of Environmental Services and Parks and Recreation are exploring setting up mobile lighting as a stop gap, for instance, while looking into permanent improvements.

Separately, he says the county is wrapping up an analysis of areas that need better visibility.

All these measures can help but Ibrahim, the policing auditor, says some persistent issues are also social issues that require a multi-department response.

“To address these issues more systemically, I would encourage the County to continue to identify resources for those in need of support around substance abuse, behavioral health, mental health needs, housing, and education, and to invest in the upkeep of properties and amenities within the community,” she said. “The responsibility to support a safer community for Green Valley residents lies with all of us.”

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