When Dana Lawhorne was in eighth grade at Parker-Gray Middle School, a police officer visited his class to talk to the students about law enforcement. Soon afterward, Lawhorne joined an Alexandria Police officer for a ride-along. That may have been the most important day of his life, a day when a 14-year-old boy decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
"At the end of that ride, I decided that's what I want to do," Lawhorne said. "And I never looked back."
After more than 26 years of experience with the Alexandria Police Department under his belt, Dana Lawhorne is ready to look in a different direction: toward the Sheriff's Office. He says that the current culture at the Sheriff's Office, especially its relationship with the Police Department, is "less than satisfactory."
"Sheriff's officers should be encouraged to help Police officers," he said. "That's not how things work now."
Lawhorne wants to bring a new sense of management to the office, increasing the community visibility of sheriff's deputies. He wants to evaluate the prison's rehabilitation programs, jettisoning ones that don't work and boosting those that do. He wants to train sheriff deputies on emergency preparedness and bring new equipment to the office. And he wants to lobby the city government to allow the sheriff's office to move into the office space abandoned by the Police Department at the Alexandria Safety Center.
<b>A NATIVE OF ALEXANDRIA</b>, Lawhorne has lived in the city his whole life. John Porter, who is currently the principal of T.C. Williams High School, taught his seventh-grade social studies class at Parker-Gray Middle School. As a teenager, Lawhorne became obsessed with law enforcement, participating in ride-along programs with police officers.
He graduated from T.C. Williams in 1976. Too young to be a police officer, Lawhorne became a security guard at the Hamlets, a west-side apartment complex owned by the Mark Winkler Co.
"That's about the closest thing you can get to being a cop," he said. "I loved it. I had the radio, the uniform and the hat."
As soon as he became 21. Lawhorne joined the Alexandria Police Department as a patrol officer. Within a year, he was training other patrol officers. Within two years, he was an acting supervisor.
"One of my first beats was Warwick Village," Lawhorne said, adding that he worked with Bill Cleveland to start the city's first neighborhood watch programs. "I would show up with the movie projector and give presentations. I went on my days off. I volunteered my time."
In his time as a patrol officer, Lawhorne says that he helped organize about 10 neighborhood watch associations.
"At that time, the force had a lot of young officers who had a strong sense of community," Lawhorne said. "It was community policing before anyone was using that term."
<b>LAWHORNE WAS PROMOTED</b> to detective in 1986, specializing in crimes against children. Before each school had a resource officer, Lawhorne worked to ensure safety in Alexandria schools. He appeared at football games and dances, breaking up fights and chasing teenagers down city streets. Being a detective investigating crimes against children was a difficult job, daily exposing Lawhorne to the devastation caused by sexual abuse and family violence.
"Kids are vulnerable, and I felt like it was my job to help make kids who had been victimized whole again," Lawhorne said. "One of the ways to do that is to catch the bad guys and put them away."
One case that stands out for him is the 2000 murder of Kevin Shifflett, an investigation Lawhorne spent several 16-hour days investigating. After one eyewitness provided a break in the case, saying that the murderer left the scene of the crime in a taxi, Lawhorne pursed the lead even though there was some resistance from his colleagues.
"It was a struggle to get others to focus on it," Lawhorne said, adding that the taxicab driver resisted cooperating with the investigation. "He had no intention of coming forward."
Eventually, DNA evidence from the taxi led to a break. Greg Murphy was eventually arrested, but he has been ruled incompetent to stand trial.
<b>THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE</b> is a place that Lawhorne would like to change, bringing more public involvement to the operation. The biggest challenge will be changing the culture of an office that has had the same leadership for 20 years.
"It needs efficient and effective leadership management," Lawhorne said. "I want to establish a better working relationship with the Police Department."
Lawhorne said that the current sheriff has focused exclusively to corrections, neglecting the relationship with the Police Department and the community. He says his campaign for sheriff is an attempt to bring more community responsibilities to the office.
"We're going to have someone who is involved with the kids, someone who is in the schools," Lawhorne said. "I want to bring back the DARE position."
Rehabilitating criminals in Alexandria's jail is another goal for Lawhorne, a difficult task that he says will require an increased commitment.
"I want to focus on sobriety and education," Lawhorne said. "When you leave the jail, you are supposed to be a better citizen than when you got there."
Lawhorne also wants to train sheriff's deputies for several potential emergencies.
"What if we have to evacuate the prison? What if there's an emergency at the courthouse?" he said. "That's just the way my mind works."
The Alexandria Public Safety Center, opened in 1987, was supposed to house the jail and the police headquarters. But poor planning caused part of the building to be built without crossbeams, and that part of the building started to sag after a few years. Lawhorne says that the building can be refurbished and used by the sheriff's office to solve an overcrowding problem at the jail.
"They've got guys living on the floor in there. It was built for 343 prisoners, and on an average day, they've got 450 prisoners," he said. "Someone needs to make the case to the city that the sheriff's office needs the space."