Police increase community engagement, business partnerships in Mount Vernon, Franconia districts

Officer reading to kids

An officer participates in the “Badges and Books” program at Lorton Library earlier this year.(Fairfax County Police image)

Speaking at the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Business Breakfast last Thursday, the captains of both the Mount Vernon and Franconia police stations told attendees that not only is crime continuing to trend downward, but community engagement initiatives seem to be having a positive impact on police-community relations.

In the Franconia Police District, station commander Capt. Michael Grinnan said they have been building trust with communities for the past couple of years with programs like Badges and Books Storytime for young children at Lorton Library, next scheduled for Saturday, May 19 from 11-11:30 a.m. Earlier this year, in partnership with Communities of Trust, the station also began “Shop Talk” — an opportunity for officers to interact with customers at local barber shops like @Witt’s End Barber Shop at Gunston Plaza in Lorton. The next Shop Talk there likely will take place in June or July, according to a police station official.

Meanwhile, in the Mount Vernon Police District, the new Fairfax PALS program being piloted at Fort Hunt and Riverside Elementary Schools is a big hit, according to station commander Capt. Matt Owens. As part of the program which kicked off April 9, officers enjoy lunch and conversation with kids on a weekly basis through the end of the current school year. The pilot schools were chosen based on the amount of police activity, including arrests, in those communities, said Owens.

Owens’ colleague — crime prevention officer MPO Robert (Bubba) Urps — said that the PALS program has benefited officers as well as children. “It’s nice to get out and be with someone not in distress,” he said, adding that he recently bonded with a young student on the basketball court. Urps said some children even request napkins from cafeteria staff to use for police autographs and that the station recently sent added law enforcement to Rollins Road after a girl approached an officer about speeding there.

The police stations plan to continue their involvement in special events like the Office of Emergency Management’s recent Preparedness Awareness Weekend at the Gum Springs Community Center, and the Community Sensory Day for families with autistic children. The latter event — held at the Mount Vernon Police Station — attracted at least a dozen families according to Owens, providing entertainment for kids while parents and officers discussed how best to keep children with developmental disabilities safe during incidents in which police are summoned.

Fairfax County Police also plan to revitalize a program they previously conducted for the Richmond Highway area business community. In partnership with the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber, the Franconia and Mount Vernon police stations will implement a “Business Watch” program, enabling business owners, managers and employees of chamber member organizations to participate in classes on crime prevention. Besides offering a “basic” class in which participants learn to file police reports, the stations will hold classes on workplace violence, business security, financial crimes and other topics. Participants will receive a newly designed decal to advertise their program participation, as well as information on police resources and how to interact with authorities.

Holly Dougherty, executive director of the Mount Vernon Lee Chamber, is looking forward to reviving the Business Watch program.

“We did the program 10 years ago, and it was a successful deterrent,” said Dougherty. “Our local police stations are well trained and do a great job supporting the business community.”

Dougherty said the Chamber currently is working out the details on where and when the trainings will take place and will be announcing that information soon.