A series of aggressive measures aimed at shoring up and improving the effectiveness of the City of Falls Church’s Police Department were presented at the City Council meeting Tuesday night.
One of the department’s total of 11 new vehicles, one of nine fully-outfitted Ford Crown Victoria cruisers, was on display in the City Hall parking lot, and Council members took a 15-minute recess from their televised business meeting to get a personal tour of the special, state-of-the-art features of the car.
By the end of next week, the first phase of the new fleet, five Crown Victoria cruisers, will begin showing up patrolling Falls Church streets. Among other things, to the joy of the Council members, their signage includes “City of Falls Church,” instead of only “Falls Church” as the department they represent.
Since taking the helm of the department in December 2006, Police Chief Col. Harry Reitze has worked aggressively to restore morale and mend shortcomings in the department that had been wracked with dissention and controversy during the tenure of his predecessor Robert Murray.
Murray had received a “vote of no confidence” from the police union and had fired the head of the union before retiring last fall. Lawsuits ensued, including a racial discrimination suit that remains active. The department had failed to recruit and retain officers to fill all the 33 slots allocated and it shocked many when it failed to retain its official Virginia State accreditation earlier this year.
Evident at Tuesday’s Council meeting, however, were manifestations of a sharp turnaround, with morale issues, in particular, being addressed through a series of officer-based initiatives. Chief Reitze was nowhere to be found Tuesday, with the responsibility to update the Council on progress in the department placed in the hands of four officers.
The City’s human resources consultant, Lilla Wise, who’d been meeting extensively with Col. Reitze in recent months, was present in the Council chamber observing the presentations.
Corp. Mike Bunker said he and three associates, Corp. Joe Carter, Officer Desiree Ferguson and Officer Justin Cuomo, were “here tonight to provide you with a state of the police department from a patrol officer’s perspective.”
He reported that three new officers are completing their field training that will bring the department to full strength for the first time in two and a half years. The ability to recruit, he said, resulted from the work of an officers’ committee that was formed to compare salaries and benefits with surrounding jurisdictions.
“We found that we had slipped to one of the lowest-paid departments in the Northern Virginia area,” he said. “We formed a working group that also included our city manager and director of human resources. Our new pay plan was instituted on July 1st of this year. We are now in line with our neighboring jurisdictions.”
The new committee also found the department was hamstrung by an “antiquated evaluation system.” That was corrected, he said, and a new promotional process within the department was also recently implemented, resulting in four officers being promoted to leadership positions.
He said a new “Chief’s Advisory Council” was also instituted in August, composed of seven officers and the chief and slated to meet quarterly. Its goal will be to “work closely with the chief to ensure that morale continues to rise and that our department continues to move in the right directions.” The council was involved in deliberations on the design of the new police vehicles that include, in addition to the cruisers, two unmarked detective vehicles.
Officer Cuomo reported another new initiative, the formation of an Emergency Services Unit which, he said, “will provide a core competency of officers to our daily patrol operations that has never before been seen in this agency.”
“We know that one day our agency will be tested, from a motorist who may try to kill one of our officers during a traffic stop, to the prospect of multiple armed intruders at our schools. This is why we have not stopped learning, training and preparing,” he said. “Our individual men and women in uniform embody some of the finest attributes of this city. They are courteous, firm yet tactful, but make no mistake, we stand ready to run towards the sound of gunfire while others run from it, should the need arise.”
“We have immediate access to state-of-the-art equipment and firearms, and the comprehensive training to accompany it,” he went on. “Because we are small, we are given much more personalized instruction than any agency around us.”
Corp. Carter also reported that a diligent effort was underway for a re-accreditation of the department, which had lapsed due to an inability to complete the paperwork required at the time.