“What can I do to help our police department?” The question was earnest, posed by a thoughtful constituent as we stood in line at the grocery store last weekend. The horrors of the sniper attack on Dallas police officers, where five officers died and several more were injured, put not only police officers and their families on greater alert, but communities across the nation on alert as well. There is a tremendous brotherhood and sisterhood in public safety, and any assault on a police officer in one part of the country is felt as an assault on all police officers.
In the wake of such slaughter, police officers in Fairfax County report being the recipients of hugs, food, and gift cards from the people they serve. Simple gestures, to be sure, but appreciated nonetheless. Such actions reinforce an understanding about our police department, where “community” and “trust” are watchwords for the department. That focus on our community – all of our diverse community – helps ensure that Fairfax County will continue to be the safest community of our size in the nation.
Protecting the public is a core service of local government, and the majority of police/community interactions centers on non-violent issues – traffic control, property damage, safety seminars, and community patrols. But police work is inherently dangerous. An argument may escalate quickly into an assault; a parking spat may result in vehicle damage; a loud party could end up with underage drinking and shots fired. An officer never knows what might happen during a call for service. That’s why officers train and retrain, from the time they are recruits at the academy, and all through their police careers. Safety never stops; neither does training.
In Dallas, police officers were covering a peaceful protest march, to ensure the safety of the marchers and onlookers, when they found themselves under attack. According to eyewitness accounts, officers continued to protect innocent bystanders, even while taking fire. That’s what they are trained to do. That’s part of the investment the community makes in recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining its police officers. That partnership with the community happened in Dallas, and it happens in Fairfax County.
And, we expect outstanding quality public safety services in return. When that doesn’t happen, as a community, we examine and reexamine policies and procedures, and make changes when needed. The Board of Supervisors is working through the dozens of recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which was formed after the Geer shooting. The recommendations reflect the changing nature of police work. The previous approaches weren’t necessarily “wrong,” things are just done differently today. That adjustment can be difficult, for officers and the community alike.
“What can we do to help?” The badge, the weapon, the Kevlar vest may identify the wearer as a police officer, but underneath it all, they are human. They need our support, our understanding, and our respect. And those will be returned, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]