Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpCould it happen here?

Last year’s eruptions of street violence between police and minorities in not-so-distant places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore rocked the nation’s policy discourse.

Arlington, however, is an unlikely setting for such socially combustible clashes, according to three who would likely play a role in any response if that dark day came. But none ruled it out.

The Arlington Committee of 100 banquet March 9 aired differently shaded perspectives from our county’s top law enforcement authority, chief prosecutor and a key African-American leader. They reflected on how Arlington’s thin blue line grapples with the “guardian/warrior” dilemma in confronting potentially deadly tensions.

“Arlington is an incredibly strong community, and in its worst times is stronger than others elsewhere,” said Arlington Chief of Police Jay Farr. He cited our school systems, relatively healthy economy and social safety net that “provides human services that fester elsewhere.”

The clashes in Ferguson and Baltimore “didn’t happen overnight, but were the result of years of policy,” he said. But Arlington is by no means unsusceptible. “Arlington is a target-rich environment, and “it only takes one bad thing to upset” the equilibrium. Our police are “trained to go fully tactical if there’s a quick turn, and protocols are in place,” Farr said. “But cops are people, too. They make mistakes.”

Common-wealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said Arlington is “ready for any tension—we’re in a good spot, but not a great spot. Anything could happen.” She mentioned the 2014 Eric Garner case on Staten Island, in which police put a black man selling illegal cigarettes in a fatal chokehold that was caught on video, yet the officers were not indicted. “I don’t think that would happen in Arlington because we’re lucky to have well-trained police,” Stamos said. She described her office’s investigation of the May 2015 shooting of a Ballston man by Arlington police during a domestic dispute, concluding it “was an unfortunate but necessary response.”

Rev. Dr. Leonard Smith, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, said, “Arlington is wonderful place, with world-class diversity, a great place to be born and die in.” Then came the however:

”We cannot ignore the truth, not always recognized when we’re shielded by our perspectives, of some realities if they don’t take place our neighborhood.” While many Arlingtonians have good government jobs, or work for tech firms or for lobbyists, others are minimum-wage day laborers “with a totally different perception,” Smith said. “We have to do a good job managing the perceptions.”

Yet what makes violence unlikely here is proactive collaboration, Smith said – judges getting out in the community, the commonwealth’s attorney and himself lunching together.

Farr described Arlington’s community policing efforts, which started in the early 1990s cleaning up Nauck’s open-air drug markets.

His recruiting efforts for diversity have produced a force that is 8 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 17 percent female.

Police are mulling giving body-worn cameras a try in a pilot program. But there’s a downside. ”What problem are we trying to solve?” Farr asked. Only a tiny fraction of the population has filed a complaint against police. The units cost $800 apiece for 220 officers and up the recordkeeping. Policymakers must decide how often officers turn them on (at home? when interviewing a victim?). Plus, their limited view range requires interpretation by prosecutors who must handle the evidence.

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The death of novelist Pat Conroy this month brought a dramatic letter of regret from Arlington/Falls Church Clerk of the Court Paul Ferguson.

The southern-baked author of “The Great Santini” and other gems lived in Arlington for two years, near Wakefield High School while attending Gonzaga High School downtown, the clerk noted. Ferguson had tried desperately to get Conroy – who played pickup hoops at Barcroft Park – to come here to speak, he revealed in a letter to the Sun-Gazette. But it never happened.

I’d like Paul to know that I got to hear Conroy speak at the Smithsonian back in the 1990s. Not only did he acknowledge the two years his military family was stationed in Arlington, he thanked his high school English teacher for her influence. She sat beaming on the front row.