The Manassas City Police Department hopes to put officers on a unique beat helping kids stay in school and, ideally, improving the department’s relationship with the predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood of Georgetown South. 

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Systems (COPS) has offered the city a $250,000 grant to fund two officers focused on school truancy and community relations. Police Chief Doug Keen said the officers would function similarly to school resource officers, but would be working with partner organizations in the community rather than the schools. The city council will need to sign off on grant conditions after its summer recess.

Nine juveniles in the city were involved in homicides or conspiracy to commit murder cases from 2017-2019, and roughly one-third of robbery offenders were juveniles, according to the grant application. All told, more than 300 violent incidents involving juvenile offenders took place from 2017 to 2019 in the city. At the same time, the application noted, over 29% of the city’s 2,200 public secondary school students were chronically absent during the 2017-18 school year, and more than 15% of the public school system’s Class of 2019 dropped out before graduating. 

“Assignments will be made in neighborhoods that have high incidents of both violent juvenile crime and chronic absenteeism,” the application reads. “The objective of these officers will be community engagement and education on the dangers of school absenteeism, as well as training to build parental awareness of resources available to track student progress within the schools.”

To fund the two officers, the city will kick in $238,948 to essentially split the cost with the Department of Justice for two years. Ultimately, the city council will need to approve a third year of full program funding as a condition of the grant.  Keen said the officers will probably be “seasoned” Manassas officers who already have a community policing background.

“The two officers are meant to be the bridge that brings all the other services together; it’s kind of unique,” Keen told InsideNoVa. “It bridges that gap from social services, education, city government, local business, community leaders and us kind of taking the lead and putting all that together.”

Although the officers will have fairly different job descriptions from most others on the force — for example, Keen said he’d like for them to arrange afterschool programming for students — they’ll still be people who came to the department with the same academy training as the rest, and they’ll still work in a full police uniform, including carrying a gun. 

“You hear a lot about defunding the police and taking them away from doing some of these services,” Keen said. “Everyone will be in full uniform, and I think it’s important that our community sees us as law enforcement but also sees a different side of us. They will see us in the MCPD uniform out there interacting, engaging with our public.”

One of the community partners on which the police will rely is the Georgetown South Community Council. Headed by Meg Carroll, a former police officer herself, the council has at times butted heads with the department over enforcement strategies and a lack of Spanish-language skills among officers. 

Carroll told InsideNoVa the department has made strides in the community, but that Spanish skills have not been enough of a priority within the rank and file or in the department’s communication strategy. Often, Carroll said, she receives calls from residents in the neighborhood about police services first, because Spanish speakers know that otherwise they’ll have to wait for a third-party translator.

“If a community police department or city police department is supposed to reflect the diversity of the city, how good of a job have we done? And I’m not talking just about language; I’m also talking about race and ethnicity,” Carroll said.

If the officers are there to do what the department has said and one is truly bilingual, as Keen has promised, then the council will remain a happy partner in the program, providing office space and other assistance with department-led community outreach programming, according to Carroll. So far, she said, the two officers responsible for designing the program and writing the grant application have done an excellent job at winning support from the community.

“I want them to do what they say. I don’t want them sending two officers here to write parking tickets,” she said. “I don’t want to turn this around because the grant and the city receiving the grant is a fantastic thing, it is. I just hope someone holds them accountable, and makes sure that we actually get what we were promised … a fully bilingual officer who can handle any situation in Spanish.”

Jose Gavidia has lived in the neighborhood for over 12 years. Originally from El Salvador, he said there are a number of challenges to policing in Georgetown South that he’d like to see addressed.

For one, he said he’d like to see more officers out of patrol cars and walking or biking a beat. Gavidia thinks that shift would not only help the police build rapport with community members, but also make them more effective and spotting problems and helping to assist.

The officers, Gavidia said, will be a welcome addition to the community if they can interact well with its residents. His neighbors would support almost anything that keeps kids out of trouble and in school. He also echoed Carroll’s concern about Spanish-speaking officers. 

“[For] most of the people, it’s a little bit hard for them to speak the language and they cannot communicate,” said Gavidia, who works as a flooring installer and serves as a trustee on the community council. “Sometimes you call the dispatch and they make you wait and in the time you wait the person that did a crime has already left or someone has been hurt already.”

More Spanish fluency would also help police navigate the delicate issue of residency challenges. Many people in the community, Gavidia said, don’t have driver’s licenses or state IDs and just carry their passport. Some, he said, are afraid to turn to the police as a resource. 

“They’re afraid to report, afraid to go to the police,” Gavidia said.

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