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Votes

Candidates for Sheriff Face Off

Bill Cleveland and Dana Lawhorne appear at back-to-back debates.

Both candidates for Alexandria's sheriff appeared at two back-to-back forums on Thursday evening last week. The candidates appeared first at the Beatley Library to speak to the Holmes Run Park Committee. Then it was off to Maury Elementary School to make an appearance at the Rosemont Civil Association. The hectic schedule made for lively debates and sharp disagreements.

"My community involvement started when I worked with Warwick Village to start a neighborhood watch program," Lawhorne said in his opening statement, adding that he received an award in 1982 for his help in the creation of the program.

As Lawhorne was talking, Cleveland began to shake his head. The creation of the Warwick Village neighborhood watch program is central to his campaign, and it has been a regular part of his stump speech since he announced his candidacy in February. Cleveland's campaign brochure features a 1979 photograph of Cleveland standing with then-Police Chief Charles Strobell in front of a neighborhood watch sign.

"I don't want to take anything away from Mr. Lawhorne," Cleveland said, adding that he started working on a neighborhood watch program in 1977. "I don't think he was a police officer yet."

Cleveland said that Lawhorne might have helped in some of the programs, but that the program was already in place when he became involved as an Alexandria police officer. Lawhorne shot back, saying that he was the police liaison for the Warwick Village citizens who started the program.

"I worked with him for years to create the neighborhood watch," Lawhorne said. "I caught the guy who was breaking into all the houses."

The debate about what happened in the late 1970s prompted one Lawhorne supporter in the back of the room to pass a note during the forum: "Do you think there's a Warwick Village Neighborhood Village Veterans for Truth?"

FOR THE MOST PART, the candidates stuck to their standard stump speeches. They outlined their experience and laid out their plans for the sheriff's office. They responded to questions, and asked those in attendance for their vote.

Cleveland reminded voters of his 30 years of experience on the Capitol Police and 15 years of experience on the City Council. He laid out his plans to create a gang intervention program, distribute identification bracelets to Alzheimer's patients and use sheriff's deputies to reduce traffic gridlock in the city. He also talked about his work with the Untouchables, a group of at-risk children. He says that the jail presents a similar opportunity to work with troubled youth.

"Folks, 97 percent of our young people do the right thing and three percent do the wrong thing," Cleveland said. "I want to get to the three percent who do the wrong thing."

Lawhorne talked about his 26 years of experience with the Alexandria Police Department, his work fighting crimes against children and his supervisory experience with the hostage negotiations unit. He has several plans for the sheriff's office: creating a better relationship with the Police Department, expanding the prison, acquiring new laptop computers for deputies and instituting new emergency procedures increasing the public profile of the office.

"My first priority is to do something about the overcrowding at the jail," Lawhorne said. "It was built to house 343 inmates, but we've got 450 inmates there on an average day."

THE CANDIDATES RESPONDED to each other's agenda several times, commenting on the campaign and the issues. On the campaign trail, Lawhorne has said that the programs at the jail need to be overhauled. He wants to jettison ones that are ineffective and create new ones that would have more success in rehabilitating the prisoners. At the Beatley Library forum, Cleveland responded that he thought the prisons programs were working fine.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Cleveland said, adding that he would like to add classes that taught prisoners to be carpenters, electricians and plumbers. "I don't want to fix the programs, but I would like to enhance them."

Since announcing his candidacy, Cleveland has advocated that the Alexandria sheriff could participate in Project Lifesaver, which would distribute identification bracelets allowing lost people to be electronically located. At the Beatley forum, Lawhorne responded that he didn't think this fit into the sheriff's job description.

"That's a program that works out in counties where the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer," Lawhorne said. "In Alexandria, the sheriff is not the chief law enforcement officer."

Lawhorne also responded to Cleveland's proposal to create a gang intervention unit in the sheriff's office, saying that the sheriff's office should not intrude on Detective Victor Ignacio's gang crime unit of the Alexandria Police Department. He also criticized Cleveland's proposal to have sheriff's deputies direct traffic during rush hours.

"That's not their job," he said.

AUDIENCE MEMBERS had their own questions, and the candidates had to think on their feet.

In response to a question about the sheriff's $22 million budget, Cleveland said that the office needs a public information officer and more K9 units. He also criticized the current sheriff's office for not appearing before the City Council to advocate budget items.

"They weren't there to back it up," Cleveland said. "I'll be there to back it up."

Lawhorne was asked about some recent controversies with the Alexandria Police Department: the Nancy Dunning murder, which is still unsolved, and the death of Lewis Barber, who was killed in Del Ray by Alexandria police officers earlier this year. He said that the detective who is responsible for the Dunning case is still at work, and that he disagreed with how the Barber situation was handled.

"There are some things that could have been done differently," said Lawhorne, who supervised the hostage negotiating team during the 12-hour standoff. "I wish that the outcome could have been different, but it was not because of me."

Both candidates responded to a question about an increased use of private process servers in the city. One of the duties of the sheriff's office is to serve judicial papers, and several private companies take up the slack when the government cannot meet the responsibility.

Cleveland approached the issue from a budget perspective, explaining to the audience that the situation "will probably continue until we can get more people."

Lawhorne approached the issue from a staffing perspective, explaining that the sheriff's office has four deputies that serve subpoenas, three deputies that serve warrants and two deputies assigned to transportation.

"I want to bring all nine under the same commander," he said.

THE MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT came in the second debate, when Lawhorne began to ask a question to Cleveland about his supervisory experience. Thinking Lawhorne was done with the question, Cleveland reached for the microphone.

"No, wait a minute, Bill," he said. "I'm not done yet."

Cleveland walked several paces away and turned to listen as Lawhorne demanded specifics about whom he had supervised and what budgets he had overseen. Cleveland responded that he had supervised a team that conducted a bomb blast study in Washington as part of the United States Capitol Police.

"I was what they called a 'tunnel rat,'" Cleveland said, adding that he had overseen many budgets in his 15 years on the City Council. He also said he played a supervisory role on the Virginia Board of Corrections to create the Red Onion State Prison in Pound.

Lawhorne saw room for a wedge, coming back to the issue of experience.

"I've got 26 years of experience with Alexandria — Alexandria — law enforcement," Lawhorne said toward the conclusion of the debate.

AFTER THE DEBATE, candidates shook hands and chatted with voters. Cleveland shared a laugh over an erroneous report in a daily newspaper about the possibility that he might run for City Council. He said that nobody called him for a quote, and he assured voters that the newspaper got it wrong.

"If approached, I will not run," he said. "If elected, I will not serve."

Lawhorne, who attended Maury Elementary School in the early 1970s, shared a laugh with supporters about the last time he took the stage in the cafeteria as a bell in the Christmas play.

"I had to wear red tights," he said. "It was so embarrassing."