Arlington, VA

A group formed by Arlington County after last summer’s nationwide racial justice protests is recommending myriad reforms to Arlington County Police Department operations.

Leading up to the formation of the Police Practices Work Group, locals were protesting police violence against unarmed civilians and the county had received a number of complaints about police conduct, as well as calls for police reform.

On Monday, 15 Arlington County residents presented the highlights of their report — which included more than 100 recommendations — to County Manager Mark Schwartz. They suggested a model for a civilian review board, changes to how police enforce traffic violations and provide mental health services, and lastly, alternatives to the police for resolving disputes.

“It’s an excellent piece of work,” Schwartz said.

All the recommendations can be found in the final report.

Assuming the county establishes a police review board, members said it should be one made of civilians with an independent auditor presiding. The review board would have up to 15 Arlington County residents and would be closed to current and former ACPD officials. The board would have the authority to conduct independent investigations and compel the release of information.

These authorities would not be used lightly, said Rodney Turner, a committee member.

“We will try to do things without getting a subpoena first and we will look to ACPD reports to see if any investigation by the oversight body is necessary,” he said.

Another group looked for ways to improve road safety without hurting underprivileged communities. It recommended, among other things, more automated traffic enforcement cameras and a sliding payment scale for fines.

But “technology is not the panacea,” member Kathleen McSweeney said. Privacy remains a concern and the county should be sensitive to camera placement so certain communities do not feel targeted, she said.

Implementation of the sliding scale would likely require action by the state legislature, said Allison Carpenter, who chaired the traffic enforcement group.

Additionally, the county should delegate the response to most mental health crises to clinicians and volunteers, said Naomi Verdugo, the chair of the mental health subcommittee. Police would only respond as a last resort or if the risk of violence is high.

Verdugo also said the county’s Crisis Intervention Center should be staffed with more clinicians and advertised as a place where police, emergency services and family members can drop off people experiencing crises. The report recommends upping non-police security staffing at the center.

Finally, a group focused on ways to change Arlington’s “culture of calling 9-1-1,” and finding other ways of resolving disputes between neighbors.

Devanshi Patel, who chaired the alternative dispute resolution subcommittee, noted that many 9-1-1 calls are related to “suspicious activity,” which can take many forms. She recommended a private-public campaign focused on the importance of properly using 9-1-1 and choosing another hotline or resource in other circumstances.

Patel said the legal system needs to be reformed “from entry to exit,” especially to divert people from being detained unnecessarily.

“The focus should be placed on opportunities for ways to avoid criminal records because of collateral consequences not only to the person but also the community,” she said.

In the next few weeks, the county will receive an independent study from law enforcement expert Marcia Thompson, who examined ACPD policies and data on the use of force, training and supervision, body-worn cameras, recruitment and retention and internal affairs.

Image via Arlington County

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As early as mid-spring, light poles along Wilson Blvd in Clarendon will be outfitted with new fixtures that monitor crowds and identify potential emergencies.

The technology will be installed sometime this spring as part of a pilot project involving multiple Arlington County departments as well as Comcast, the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative and US Ignite — a nonprofit focused on community innovation. The initiative is dubbed the “Safety and Innovation Zone demonstration project.”

During its recessed meeting yesterday (Tuesday), the County Board voted 4-1, with Takis Karantonis dissenting, in favor of the pilot project. US Ignite is donating $90,000 to buy the light fixtures, which Comcast will provide, along with a three-month trial of public Wi-Fi in the area.

Karantonis said his vote should not be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence, but rather, it should signal that he is still skeptical and would like to see more public engagement.

The primary use for the fixtures, to be installed along the 2900 block of Wilson Blvd, will be “people counting,” said Holly Hartell, who presented the project on behalf of the Department of Technology Services. In other words, the light fixtures will monitor crowd sizes and flow to recognize unexpected movements that could indicate a potential threat or emergency situation.

“This is an effort to speed things up where seconds and minutes count,” said Arlington County Fire Chief David Povlitz. “If we could gain information to send the right resource to the right place in a timely fashion that could really accelerate us operationally and also safety-wise.”

The light fixtures do not have the capacity to videotape people, capture images or provide identifying information, Hartell said. They can pick up the presence or absence of an event they have been programmed to detect, such as a large crowd moving quickly. This data will be converted into text and sent to a dashboard in the county’s Emergency Communications Center.

“Everything will be anonymous,” Hartell said. “You will never be able to identify an individual person.”

Later on, the technology could be used to detect falls, blasts, shots, and distress cries, as well as sudden temperature changes or the presence of smoke.

The fire chief added that “this [pilot] is just a start and we hope to be able to build this out in the county in time.”

“We are aware of people who are concerned,” Hartell later told ARLnow, of questions raised about the project. “I understand their concerns, and I want to give them the confidence that what we’re looking at is not going to be in any way impacting their privacy.”

The partners in the project — CCI, US Ignite and Comcast — are all providing best practices on collecting data while respecting privacy, she said. The county has also developed a privacy framework to use as it goes about the project.

“We are protecting people’s privacy while improving our services,” she said.

The pilot project will be in place for about one year. The first few months will be spent refining the uses for the technology, followed by six months of data collection, and finally, an assessment period. Next spring, the county will decide if the project could be replicated elsewhere. At that time, there will be robust public engagement opportunities, Hartell said.

During the meeting, Hartell said the block was chosen because it has a vibrant business district and a “pretty active restaurant and pedestrian activity,” even now during the pandemic.

One incident the technology might have caught in that location, had it been in place a few years ago: the famous 2018 Cheesecake Factory incident, when a promotion for free cheesecake got out of control

The original proposal was to focus on social distancing and mask-wearing, according to the staff report. A small number of business members of the Clarendon Alliance were consulted on the idea, and their concern led to a shift away from coronavirus measures, staff said.

Photo 1 via Google Maps, photos 2-3 via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Arlingtonian to Join Administration — “President-elect Joe Biden said Monday he will nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who served as the top U.S. diplomat overseeing African affairs in the Obama administration, to be his ambassador to the United Nations.” Thomas-Greenfield is a long-time Arlington resident. [USA Today]

Arlington’s Average Income Falls — “The county’s weekly wage averaged $1,926 in the second quarter of 2020, according to figures reported Nov. 18 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up slightly more than 12 percent from the rate recorded a year before, but down from the $2,018 reported for the first quarter of 2020, which had placed Arlington in the rare company of just a handful of localities with incomes that high.” [InsideNova]

Police Investigating Stabbing Near the Pike — “At approximately 6:18 p.m. on November 20, police were dispatched to the report of trouble unknown. Upon arrival, it was determined the witness was running in the park when the victim approached him and fell to the ground. Medics arrived on scene, began treating the victim and determined he was suffering from a stab wound. He was transported to an area hospital with non-life threatening injuries.” [ACPD]

Airport Construction Continues — “Anticipating the day passenger traffic returns to a semblance of normalcy, the new 14-gate concourse at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport continues to make progress toward a planned opening next year. The new concourse, attached as a pier off of Terminal C at the airport, is now fully enclosed, with half the passenger jet-bridges on site, according to a recent update from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.” [InsideNova]

Changes for Drivers at DCA — “Construction has reduced lanes on Baggage Claim (lower) level in front of Terminal B/C. Drivers should use any door on the Ticketing (upper) level to pick up and drop off holiday travelers. Taxis are still available downstairs.” [Twitter]

Thanksgiving Travel Tips from VSP — “This year overall, state police have seen fewer crashes on Virginia highways but those crashes have been more deadly. Making sure you are driving the posted speed limit, driving for conditions and wearing your seatbelt are the best ways to stay safe on the road.” [Press Release]

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The group Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail are asking for help over the next three weeks to fix a trail bridge next to Theodore Roosevelt Island.

The efforts come after successful fundraiser that raised more money than the friends needed to apply non-skid treatment to the bridge, which is nicknamed the “Trollheim Bridge” and has a reputation for being dangerous to bike riders.

After scrubbing away mold, moss and mildew, the Friends are turning to fixing loose boards and replacing damaged boards, another hazard on a bridge that the organization says is “notoriously slippy.”

The opportunities are part of the ongoing effort to “make Trollheim Bridge a little less trollish,” said the announcement on the website.

This Saturday, the friends will be reattaching boards bicyclists often hear “flopping around” on the bridge. Next Thursday, they will be replacing rotting deck boards. On Saturday, Dec. 5, there will be a second event for fixing boards on the bridge.

“There’s a lot of freaking loose boards,” the announcement said. “If we run out of boards, we’ll start flipping some of the boards to extend their life.”

The Friends encourage those who are interested to register via the above links. According to the registration page, volunteers are asked to bring water, gloves, a safety vest and a cordless drill, if they have one.

Extra money from the GoFundMe fundraiser went toward a pressure washer that is speeding up cleaning, as well as extra non-skid treatment for two other bridges with many crashes, including Bridge 1 north of Mount Vernon estates.

In May, the National Park Service released a study of the trail that recommends widening it in some places, particularly hot spots for crashes. There were 225 reported bike and pedestrian crashes on the trail between 2006 and 2010, according to the study, though most were reported in parts of the trail south of the bridge.

The 18.5-mile Mount Vernon Trail sees approximately one million annual users.

The Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail, founded in 2018, supports the National Park Service and helps keep the trail safe through education, trail maintenance and community events.

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County staff are accepting public comments on some long-awaited safety improvements at three intersections along the Bluemont Junction trail.

Residents will be asked if the proposed changes would make them feel safe using the trail or driving across it. The engagement period is open through Friday, Nov. 20.

For years, users have said conditions are unsafe along the trail, which connects Ballston with the Washington and Old Dominion trail at Bluemont Park. It’s difficult for trail users and drivers to see one another at the intersections, until the former are already in the crosswalk.

Discussions and presentations on upgrades began last winter, but staff had to pause their progress this spring due to the pandemic. Work resumed this fall.

“Trail safety and access issues for the Bluemont Junction trail were first raised by the community in 2013,” the county project page said. “The project has evolved to focus on the three intersections included based on site visits, data analysis, and community input.”

The intersections are at N. Kensington Street, N. Emerson Street and N. Buchanan Street.

The Bluemont Civic Association, the Bicycle Advisory Committee and Pedestrian Advisory Committee provided input on the preliminary designs. The public comment period through Nov. 20 will inform the design plans that county staff will present to stakeholders for more comments once they are 30% complete.

“This project was identified as necessary to improve safety and accessibility at intersections where the trail and the street network meet,” the county staff project page said. “It will benefit people walking, biking, accessing transit, and driving.”

Where the trail intersects with N. Buchanan Street and N. Emerson Street, the trail and road are at different elevations and visibility is low, the survey said.

Although the trail is typically more heavily used than the roads, signs are limited and the street markings are worn out.

At N. Buchanan Street, staff propose using striping at the trail crossing to slow speeds and give motorists more time to see trail users, adding warning signs and possibly creating a raised crossing.

At N. Emerson Street, county staff propose raising the crossing, changing the angle of the approach to the trial and adding signs. 

Sightlines at the N. Kensington Street intersection are limited and nearby transit stops are not ADA accessible, the survey said.

They propose narrowing the trail crossing, adding ADA-compliant transit stops with boarding platforms, bringing the raised crossing up to trail grade, adding ADA-compliant tactile warning strips and improving the high-visibility crosswalk markings.

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The Arlington Transportation Commission voted 8-2 at its meeting last week to not recommend that the County Board submit a funding application for proposed changes to Route 50.

The project would, among other changes, widen the roadway to add dedicated turn lanes.

The application requests $25.1 million from the Virginia Department of Transportation‘s (VDOT) SMART SCALE funding program to make improvements to Route 50, also known as Arlington Blvd, where it runs between Glebe Road and Fillmore Street.

This stretch of road, according to VDOT, had 247 crashes on it with 61 total injuries between 2014 and 2018.

“This segment of Route 50 experiences congestion in the morning and evening peak periods and a high number of crashes,” VDOT said in an April presentation. “Route 50 averages 62,000 vehicles a day within the study limits.”

Potential changes would come from recommendations made in a yearlong VDOT study of this area. These include adding new left-turn lanes and expanding current ones, as well as installing raised medians in certain high crash areas.

Constructing a new service road where Route 50 runs eastbound between Glebe and N. Jackson Street, and reconstructing a shared-use path in the section, were also recommended by VDOT.

The commission did pass a motion to recommend the County Board direct the County Manager to lay plans for a Route 50 corridor study between Roosevelt Bridge and Fairfax County.

Members voting against VDOT’s recommendation cited issues with the department’s study — including what they said was a limited scope, a failure to consider how changes would impact speed in this section of road, and a failure to account for more cars driving this road — as reasons for their vote.

Commissioner Darren Buck, the most outspoken critic of VDOT’s recommendations during the meeting, said the fact that VDOT’s study only looked at the area between Glebe and Fillmore and not Route 50 as a whole was among his greatest concerns about supporting the plan.

“I do not want to apply to fund this fundamentally flawed project to fill pressing local needs when a more comprehensive study of the corridor is pushed off indefinitely,” Buck said. “I do not think [the state should be] sinking $25 million into a spot improvement that basically determines how the rest of the corridor is going to look when we still haven’t addressed that long-standing open community question of how the rest of the corridor should look and operate.”

Commissioner Margarita Brose, as one of two commissioners voting for recommending the funding application, said the already high number of crashes in the section outweighed concerns over the project’s cost and a widening of the roadway.

“The safety concerns really weigh heavily on me,” Brose said. “I understand it’s a lot of money for a short period but we’ve seen the statistics on the number of cars that go through there and the crashes.”

VDOT said the study’s recommendations were primarily focused on improving the road’s safety.

“The safety aspect is one of the key things that led us to try and find a solution or a way to reduce those crashed,” VDOT said. “That’s one of the key motivating things that got us to start the study and to come up with the alternatives that we reviewed.”

Still, commission members questioned the actual safety added by VDOT’s recommendations.

“We are adding lanes for cars and making the highway more divided so that cars will go faster,” Commissioner Taylor Reich said. “As a result of this, I am unconvinced this project will improve safety, especially for pedestrians.”

VDOT said its plan leaves three through lanes in each direction on Route 50, which is similar to its current state. The road widening, she said, is to allow room for new left turn lanes.

If the County Board approves a SMART SCALE funding application, there is no guarantee the project would receive the money. VDOT describes SMART SCALE funding as highly competitive.

Images via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Va. Adopts New Workplace Safety Rules — “Today, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board acted to protect the Commonwealth’s workers by adopting emergency temporary standards, which set forth enforceable, common-sense requirements that employers must follow to protect their workers during the COVID-19 pandemic… Key requirements, such as those for physical distancing, workplace sanitization, and information sharing, will apply to all workers.” [Commonwealth of Virginia, Legal Aid Justice Center, Twitter]

Witness Helps Apprehend Robbery Suspect — “Two employees followed the suspect outside and attempted to take back the items, at which point a physical altercation ensued. The suspect assaulted the employees and threw the items at them. During this time, a witness heard commotion outside the business and went to investigate, but was struck by the suspect as he fled on foot. Arriving officers, with the assistance of the witness, located the suspect nearby and took him into custody without incident.” [Arlington County]

ACPD No Longer Working With Ring — “Amazon.com Inc.’s doorbell camera subsidiary Ring Inc. has partnered with more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, but it appears it won’t be making a similar arrangement with the HQ2-area police force. Despite quite a bit of interest last year, the Arlington County Police Department said it is no longer ‘actively seeking a partnership with Ring,’ which would have provided its officers access to a special police portal of the company’s Neighbors app.” [Washington Business Journal]

Amazon Delaying Return to Offices — “Amazon said it is allowing employees who can work from home to do so until Jan. 8., once again extending the timeline on a return to work for many of its employees.” [CNBC]

Hope Gets Primary Challenger — Political operative Matt Rogers has announced that he will be challenging Del. Patrick Hope (D-Va.) in next year’s Democratic primary. [Twitter, Blue Virginia]

Local Stage Star Offers Singing Telegrams — “Her title role in ‘Porgy and Bess’ was postponed at the Kennedy Center this summer. Instead, Alyson Cambridge of Arlington, Virginia, is participating in Sing for Hope grams… The idea is to give personalized singing grams from Broadway and opera stars.” [WTOP]

ACFD Battles Falls Church House Fire — Arlington County firefighters were joined by firefighters from Fairfax County in battling a house fire on Robinson Place in the City of Falls Church yesterday. [Tysons Reporter]

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(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Drivers have been routinely cutting across northbound I-395 to access the HOV bridge into the District, causing traffic hazards on the normally busy highway.

During a pandemic and nationwide protests, it might not seem like a big deal, but it has been happening with surprising regularity.

Public safety watchdog Dave Statter has caught numerous drivers on video, risking life and limb to shave a few minutes from their drive. It happened over and over again on Saturday, when a crash backed up traffic in the main lanes.

Many drivers try to make the move while coming from the Crystal City area and southbound Route 110.

Earlier this month, Statter posted a video of an SUV driver blocking traffic and taking almost a minute to cross the three lanes of the highway to get to the slightly less backed up bridge. VDOT took note of the video on Twitter.

A Metrobus driver was spotted doing the same in February. Statter tells ARLnow that Metro told him they “immediately handled it” after seeing the video.

This afternoon, meanwhile, Statter posted about yet another driver attempting the “daredevil dash.”

Photo (top) via Google Maps

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(Updated at 11:05 a.m.) A combination of hot days and pandemic closures has sent people flocking to the banks of the Potomac River near Chain Bridge.

On both the Virginia and D.C./Maryland sides of the river, people are fishing, picnicking, hanging out and, in some cases, swimming. The last one of those is a major danger, authorities say, as is accidental falls into the river.

First responders from D.C., Arlington and federal agencies have conducted rescue operations along the Potomac several times over the past few months.

In March, a man suffering a medical emergency was airlifted from rocky terrain on the Virginia side, just north of Chain Bridge. In May, a search and rescue operation turned into a recovery operation after a 67-year-old man fell into the river and died. On Tuesday, another search — this time, a man is presumed dead after swimming in the river, going under and not resurfacing.

On Wednesday, D.C. Fire and Rescue posted on social media, urging people to avoid the waters of the Potomac.

“The Potomac River around Chain Bridge is treacherous and deceiving,” the fire department tweeted. “DO NOT swim anywhere in this area. If you are on the shoreline, stay a safe distance from the water. A fall into the river can quickly turn fatal.”

Over this past weekend, National Park Service employees could be seen watching over the crowds from Chain Bridge. On Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard personnel were spotted talking and showing maps to river-goers near the bridge.

One local resident told ARLnow this morning that even more needs to be done.

“Arlington and D.C. need to start policing along the river banks,” the resident said via email. “My family and I walk down to the river most nights and the trash, fires and illegal cast nets are increasing daily. It’s become a nightly party down on the river banks.”

“I grew up in Arlington and have always walked the banks. I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on now,” the resident continued. “Police need to patrol the area, like they used to. The only time you see police down there is when someone falls in…. It’s dangerous and I don’t want anyone else to die.”

Jay Westcott contributed to this report

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(Updated at 12:25 p.m.) Five arterial streets in Arlington are being considered as candidates for a Complete Streets overhaul.

The county’s Complete Streets program adds safety features to roadways that improve the experience of road users other than drivers, including pedestrians and cyclists. The changes are usually made in conjunction with repaving projects.

The streets that are up for a makeover later this year are:

  • Wilson Boulevard — N. Larrimore Street to McKinley Road (Dominion Hills/Boulevard Manor)
  • Potomac Avenue — S. Crystal Drive to Alexandria City Line (Potomac Yard)
  • Clarendon Boulevard — N. Nash Street to N. Oak Street (Clarendon-Courthouse/Radnor/Fort Myer Heights)
  • N. Lorcom Lane — Old Dominion Drive to N. Taylor Street
  • Military Road — Lorcom Lane to Old Dominion Drive

At an online open house scheduled for Monday, April 6, Arlington County staff members will reveal more details about the project and how community members can share their experiences.

The virtual public meeting is scheduled to run from 6:30-7:30 p.m. via Microsoft Teams Live Event. No account is needed to join.

Complete Streets upgrades may include “sidewalk expansion or obstruction elimination,” “curb ramp reconstruction,” “crosswalk and signal enhancements,” “pedestrian-scale lighting,” “improved access to transit stops” and bike lanes, per the county’s website.

Such changes have been implemented in other parts of Arlington, though they’ve also faced some public pushback from local residents concerned about traffic impacts. One Complete Streets project in neighboring Alexandria has become a legendarily contentious issue.

Photos via Google Maps

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