"I am here today to dispel the myth that the Mount Vernon District is a high-crime area. And if you compare Fairfax County with surrounding jurisdictions, the overall crime rate is low."
That was the message Capt. Shawn M. Barrett, commander, Mount Vernon District Station, Fairfax County Police Department, brought to senior citizens assembled at the Old Country Buffet on Monday. "This is a great meeting place for seniors, and many of them cannot make our evening citizen meetings," Barrett explained.
"We have a real core senior group, and it's very important we work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to ensure their safety," said Kelly Greenwood, manager of the restaurant located at 7820 Richmond Highway. Lunch time on the third Monday of each month is Senior Day, with groups coming from various assisted-living facilities throughout the area.
"Seniors often get locked into a specific time frame in their analysis of a situation. We want to get rid of the stereotypes and offer suggestions on how they can better protect themselves in all situations," Barrett emphasized.
Greenwood initiated the restaurant's Senior Day approximately four years ago, soon after becoming manager. The session runs 12:30-2 p.m., and the seniors enjoy dancing and entertainment with music supplied by DJ Bert Nelbach, formerly with WMJS-FM and the Juke Box Cafe. And, there are topics of interest, such as Barrett's presentation.
"This is a first-time effort. But if it catches on, I would like to do these information-exchange sessions on a regular basis," Barrett stated.
JOINING HIM WAS Pfc. Edward Rediske, crime prevention officer, Fairfax County Police Department. "We set up civic and community groups to deal with questions of personal safety and crime prevention. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to scam artists," Rediske noted.
"One of the greatest scams consists of people showing up unannounced, performing chores on a person's property, and then giving them a bill for something they had not even contracted for. If that happens, we tell them to call us and don't pay the bill," he advised.
Three of the most traditional scams are treating driveways, trimming trees and raking leaves, according to Rediske. "It's also a setup for burglary. Someone draws the homeowner out of the house by performing one of the unauthorized chores, engages them in conversation, while someone else goes in a back door and rifles the place for valuables," he explained.
"We want people to trust their instincts. If they see someone suspicious hanging around the neighborhood, they should call and alert us. We'll come and check it out and get information on that person.
"If it's all legitimate, everyone is OK. But scam artists don't like the police to have any information on them. They will move on if they know we have details and a visual contact," Rediske assured.
Barrett added, "I don't want to give the impression that we are totally safe. We are not. And Richmond Highway is one of the most dangerous roads in the area. But we are making progress," he stated. This year 57 people have been killed on Fairfax County roads.
MOUNT VERNON DISTRICT STATION conducted its second "Safe Corridor" driver/pedestrian crackdown between Sept. 6 and Oct. 4 along Route 1 from the Beltway to Lorton. "We had five officers specifically designated to this operation," Barrett said, "but the whole station was involved."
During that time the five full-time officers gave out 309 speeding tickets, 256 seat-belt citations and 104 pedestrian warnings. The whole station wrote 1,558 citations during the same time frame for the Route 1 corridor, according to Barrett.
"If and when VDOT [Virginia Department of Transportation] gets signs put up along the corridor, telling motorists to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks, I plan to have officers act as decoy pedestrians to enforce the new restrictions," he emphasized. This is now done in Montgomery County, Md.
Fines for violation of not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks have been increased from $25 to a sliding scale of $100 to $500. He also warned that the third sobriety checkpoint program of the year will be established during December.
As part of his presentation, Barrett circulated a handout giving statistics on how Mount Vernon District ranked among the other six districts in the county in various categories throughout 2001.
. Violent crimes: Right at the midpoint, with three districts showing less and three showing more, Mount Vernon had just over 3,000.
. Property Crimes: Mount Vernon was the lowest with 14,000. Fair Oaks was the highest with nearly 19,000.
. Fatal/Injury Accidents: Mount Vernon was second lowest with 700.
. Other Accidents: Mount Vernon was lowest, with just over 1,600.
. Traffic Non-Accidents: Mount Vernon was third lowest, with just over 400. Franconia and McLean were lower, with Fair Oaks, West Springfield, Mason and Reston higher.
. Traffic Accidents: Mount Vernon was the lowest, even with the Route 1 corridor. There were just under 2,500. McLean came in the highest with nearly 4,000.
TWO OTHER information pieces available to the assembled seniors, published by the police department, were "Home Security and Neighborhood Watch: A Guide for Protecting Your Home and Property” and "A Guide to Personal Safety." The latter gives suggestions for personal safety in a variety of environments. Both are available through the department.
Although Fairfax County ranks as the 14th most populated jurisdiction in the nation, the police department is 42nd in sworn employees. Whereas areas such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Tampa have 46, 30, 29 and 33 officers per 100,000 population, respectively, Fairfax County has only 12 per 100,000. Each of the other areas has approximately one-third the total population.
For this reason, the Mount Vernon District, as well as others in the county, has established a Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) to work with the police in crime prevention. In the Mount Vernon District, the CAC meets the second Tuesday of every month, presently at the Walt Whitman Elementary School. Its role, as described in Barrett's handout, is as follows:
"The police are accountable to the community. However, citizens share that responsibility with the police to take action towards increasing community livability, and for the reduction of crime and disorder. Officer and community identify the core problem. The community is allowed to provide the solution. The officer's role is more of a facilitator than a leader."