September 20, 2021
During an Arlington County Circuit Court sentencing hearing Sept. 3 for a man who had plead guilty to armed robbery and a firearms offense, Chief Judge William T. Newman made audible note of a reality that seldom is adequately recognized by the Arlington community and those who run it.
“We live in a time when a lot of people who have actually sometimes done nothing have been killed by police for things, and here, this was not a situation where you had not done anything. You had,” Judge Newman told the man. “Literally, what for the restraint shown by these police officers, you – you could be dead.”
That man had taken a vehicle at gunpoint and later run from Arlington police officers through a residential neighborhood. As officers – some of whom had their guns drawn – closed in, the man pulled a firearm from his waistband. Faced with a highly stressful, extremely dangerous situation, the officers demonstrated a degree of prudence commonly shown by the Arlington County Police Department.
The man tossed the gun aside, no shots were fired, and he was taken into custody without further incident. Judge Newman acknowledged the gravity of the discipline those officers exhibited, and if that composure is a trait Arlingtonians value in their cops, there are some other sobering truths they should know.
The Arlington County Police Department is hemorrhaging officers. Thus far in 2021, 41 Arlington cops have left or have put in notice to leave the department – approximately 14 percent of its functional strength – and in a survey conducted this month by the Arlington Coalition of Police, 99 officers said they plan to leave ACPD within the next year. Twenty of those officers said they plan to depart within the next three months.
Should even half of those decampments come to fruition, the quality of service the Arlington community receives from its police force will diminish. Fewer officers means less time and resources for investigations of every sort. It means the officers that remain will be asked to work more hours with less help. It means that when officers encounter armed subjects that just committed violent offenses, they will be operating under more cumulative stress and deeper cumulative exhaustion.
County leaders – who will convene Tuesday evening – are aware of this issue and have yet to demonstrate that they value the quality of service ACPD provides to the extent that they are willing to take immediate and drastic steps to attempt to stop the bleeding. Perhaps this is Arlington’s way of defunding the police without having to publicly proclaim that agenda.
ACPD has not yet had to pull investigators back to patrol in an attempt to sufficiently address 911 calls for service, but with each week that passes, more Arlington officers trade in their badges for more lucrative and less dangerous jobs elsewhere.
After the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services closed five of the state’s eight adult mental health institutions in July due to a dramatic increase in staff resignations and unsafe working conditions, Arlington police officers were tasked with having prolonged interactions with those in the county suffering mental crises. With nowhere to take those most in need of help from experienced mental health professionals, ACPD has staffed coverage of these patients at Virginia Hospital Center around the clock for days at a time.
The community has said it wants to limit the interactions police have with those in mental crisis – a desire overwhelmingly shared by Arlington officers. But as is commonly the case, when the community has a problem few others want to address, it turns to the police.
Nine days before the sentencing hearing in which Judge Newman highlighted the temperateness of Arlington’s officers, a man approached several ACPD officers outside the police station and asked them to shoot him. He then pulled two steak knives out of his pockets and approached the officers with one knife in each hand. The officers created space, utilized less-lethal weapons, and took the man into custody without anyone involved suffering injury.
Two days before that incident, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police honored an ACPD officer who prevented a man suspected of having just committed an armed bank robbery from jumping in front of an oncoming train on a Metro platform. In the process, the officer suffered a fractured tibia. The arrestee was uninjured.
None of this is to suggest that Arlington cops have not or would not use lethal force when absolutely necessary to protect their lives or the lives of others. It also is not to suggest that ACPD officers are beyond reproach. The department has proven willing and able to hold its officers accountable when they demonstrate errors in judgment.
But the components of the police department that help keep Arlington safe and out of the national spotlight for negative reasons – the commitment and capabilities of its officers – are fragile. The average years of service of the 41 officers who have left ACPD in 2021 is 14.7. And of late, only approximately 30 percent of the applicants who sign up for the department’s entry exam actually show up to take the test.
Arlington is struggling to find highly qualified people who want to serve as police, and the county affords its current officers little reason to stay. Officers know some members of the public will have little sympathy for the fact that after promising police officers a 5.5 percent annual merit increase in pay in 2019, county leaders stopped following through on that after the first year. They know some people will not care that officers struggle to afford to live in Arlington despite the abundance of overtime opportunities that exist due to depleted staffing levels.
What ACPD officers are hoping is that they are wrong about Arlington’s ambivalence toward the department’s plummeting personnel numbers. They believe it is time for the county they serve to stop taking them for granted.