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Crime in Great Falls

Focus group brings citizens and police together to discuss concerns about local crime.

In a twist of irony, the Great Falls Library was broken into and burglarized on Saturday night, Dec. 2 — just two days before a community focus group met in the library's meeting room to discuss local crime issues and concerns with Fairfax County Police.

No one — not even the members of the Dec. 5 crime focus group — anticipated such a violation of their community library. Fairfax County officials certainly never expected one of the biggest heists in its history to occur in the community that boasted the lowest crime rate in the county. That very statistic prevented the installation of a security system when the library was constructed in 2000. The Dec. 2 break-in provided the backdrop to the Tuesday night focus group meeting, which was put on by the Great Falls Citizens Association in conjunction with local non-profit organization the Neighbors International Foundation.

Prior to the focus group meeting, the Great Falls Citizens Association and the Neighbors Foundation passed out crime and safety questionnaires to members of the community. Collecting as many returned surveys as they could, members of the organizations then examined the results and took note of common concerns. The Dec. 5 focus group meeting was scheduled to go over the results and brainstorm potential solutions.

ONE OF THE PRIMARY complaints that came up in the survey was that many residents of Great Falls do not feel there is an adequate presence of local police officers in the community.

"We pay taxes too, but we don't get much," said long-time resident Marge Gersick. "I don't see too many police around here."

Although Great Falls does not have its own district police station, it is covered within the boundaries of the Reston District Station. At times, it is also serviced by the McLean District Station officers. Reston District Station Capt. Deborah Burnett attended Tuesday's meeting to answer citizen questions.

"Just because you don't see Great Falls in the name of the station, or in the police newsletter, doesn't mean that we aren't representing you," said Burnett. "We are representing everyone together."

Burnett added that while residents may not always see police officers over the course of the day, it does not mean that they are not present and watching.

"On any given day, you can have one to six officers covering the area, depending on shifts," said Burnett. "It is divvied up by population, but no one is locked into any one area."

Kathleen Murphy, a member of the Great Falls Citizens Association and co-chair of its 2020 Vision Project committee, said that she thinks residents should activate more Neighborhood Watch associations. Burnett said that there are 38 active Neighborhood Watch associations in the area covered by the Reston District Station, but very few of them are in Great Falls .

"I think there are some things that we as residents can do," said Murphy. "With training, we can raise our awareness."

Jackie Taylor, president of the Great Falls Citizens Association, agreed with Murphy and said that it would help if residents made themselves aware of the factors that motivate crime. She added that some crime might be closer to home than people may want to admit.

"A lot of the kids around here have as much as they want and can get whatever they want, but a lot of stuff might be pranks," said Taylor .

Burnett said that Neighborhood Watch programs are a very effective way for residents to be proactive about fighting crime in their community.

"We don't know what is out of place in your neighborhood, but you do," said Burnett.

SOME OF THE FOCUS group participants expressed concern about what they perceive as an increase in criminal activity, and a lack of information about local incidents.

"Having lived here for over 30 years myself, I was one of those people that thought nothing happens in Great Falls, but I think Great Falls is changing, and I think that the problem is that people in Great Falls don't really know what is happening," said resident Beth Putnam. "I think it's serious, and I don't think that we should sit around for four more years and wait for it to get worse."

However, while Burnett agrees that the community is changing, she emphasized that the perception that crime has dramatically increased is partially due to an increase in reported crimes, rather than an actual increase in criminal activity.

"I have definitely seen an increase in reported crime and that is fabulous," said Burnett. "If you don't report a crime, then the police have no record of it, and it's like it never happened … and the rise of reported crimes makes the statistics higher."

She noted that communities with Neighborhood Watch programs consistently have a higher incidence of calls to police, but a much lower incidence of crime, than communities that do not employ Neighborhood Watch programs. Burnett attributes the increase in reported crime to the availability of on-line forms and the non-emergency police line.

"There's a much greater scope of reporting now," said Burnett. "You don't have to have an officer show up at your house."

However, Burnett agrees that it is imperative for residents to become more vigilant about their own safety because many of the very same attributes that attract people to live in Great Falls — large lots, low density and plenty of trees — are the very same attributes that attract criminals.

"Unfortunately, it's very difficult because it is a very target-rich environment, but a lot of the things that happen around here, like people having their cars and homes broken into because they left their doors unlocked, are crimes of opportunity – and unless you eliminate the opportunity, it's going to happen," said Burnett.