“Everybody wants to be Falls Church because they are just that good.” So proclaimed Derek May, the project manager for Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, in reporting the re-accreditation of the City’s police department at Monday’s F.C. City Council meeting. Falls Church, he said, “is a darn good place.”
Falls Church Police Chief Mary Gavin told the Council that she is “tickled pink” by the news, which underscored the department’s professionalism. Council member David Snyder said, “I couldn’t be prouder of our police department and its approach to the community in a positive and constructive way.”
At the Sept. 12 Council Meeting, the City’s Police Department was awarded the Certification of Accreditation in recognition of their successful completion of the certification process through the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission.
According to a statement from City Hall, to obtain accreditation, a law enforcement agency must meet all applicable program standards, maintain their accreditation files on an on-going basis, and provide annual verifications of compliance as required by the commission. For an agency to maintain accredited status, an intensive on-site assessment of its policies and operations is required every four years to assure that the agency remains in compliance.
It added that all accreditation programs are designed to verify an agency’s compliance with the professional standards applicable to their discipline or profession. “This is one of the only means by which citizens and government leaders can be assured that an agency is maintaining a high level of performance and service to the community. By achieving and maintaining their accredited status, the Falls Church Police Department has demonstrated their commitment to excellence and their willingness to be evaluated to the highest standards of the law enforcement profession.”
In a white paper prepared by Chief Gavin’s office for presentation to the Falls Church City Council last year, the City’s department was compared against the final report of the Presidential Task Force for 21st Century Policing published in May 2015. Speaking of accreditation, the report cited its importance for establishing and confirming “best practices.”
In an interview with the News-Press last summer, Chief Gavin said that central to the F.C. police department internal conversations related to the notion that officers perceive themselves to be “guardians” of the public, rather than “warriors.”
The chief’s white paper noted that in the goal of “Building Trust and Legitimacy” that “citizens in our community must believe in and trust the system, a system which the community can identify with, a system grounded with the purpose of serving and protecting all equally with a Guardian Mindset.”
It spoke to the “Departmental culture as well as in each and every officer’s actions” such that “the values and ethics of a department will guide the decision making process of each and every officer” impacting officers’ “discretion accompanied by the awesome use of authority granted to them by the community.”
It noted that “the four central principles for creating trust in an officer’s interaction” include “treating people with dignity and respect, giving individuals voice during an encounter, being neutral and transparent in decision making, and conveying trustworthy motives.”
“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian mindset as…a great deal of power is given to those called guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy,” the paper stated.
In a recent interview with the News-Press, Chief Gavin said there has been a lot of discussion within her department of contrasting the preferred “guardian” concept to that of a “warrior” identity.
She said pillars of their mission include the sanctity of life and an emphasis on de-escalation in the face of crises, to slow and calm things down, as contrasted to “just going on calls and arresting people.”
The “paradigm shift” involves an officer responding, rather than simply reacting to a threat, especially when use of force may be required. Force situations, of which there were about 50 last year, she said, involve grabs and cuffs, tasers, billy clubs and guns.
In the case of tasers, they were used five or six times in the last year, and Chief Gavin added, “They save lives, I can tell you that” in potentially deadly force situations.
Chief Gavin said that she does not favor, or deploy, body cameras on officers because of the privacy rights of victims, among other things. But for over a decade the Falls Church department has had in-car cameras and audible boxes on the shoulders of the officers. Defibrillators are also in each car, and that saved at least one life in the City in the last year.
The said department policy is not only to allow, but to encourage bystanders at an incident to use their videotaping capabilities. “It’s their first amendment right, for one thing, and it also removes defensiveness,” she said. “We’re always going to be taped and we welcome it.”
She said that with advances in technology, the public expectation is that officers are “smarter, live up to high expectations, show an ability to adapt and exhibit transparency.”
But the good news is that the crime rate is down partly due to social media where “everyone’s a reporter and can’t get the facts out fast enough.”
With the Falls Church department since 2007 after 22 years in Arlington, Chief Gavin commands a force of 32 officers with two who’ve been hired but are now in training at the police academy.
She said she’s proud of the diversity on the force, including “a good mix” of ages, ranging from 22 to near retirement age. Officers on the force also hail from distant places like Nepal, South Africa and Russia.
Cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions is also key, as Falls Church currently has no “specialty units” of its own.
But as the City’s population grows (it is now the fastest growing jurisdiction in the state), the pressure to meet the demand for more staffing will continue to grow.