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The Voice of the Force

After 11 years as the voice of the Alexandria police, John Crawford is moving to Arlington.

His tough-talking Long Island accent has been the voice of the Alexandria Police Department for 11 years. But now, with new challenges awaiting him in Arlington County, Capt. John Crawford is ending his service as public information officer for the city’s police force — capping a 31-year career in the city. He will become administrator of the new Arlington Emergency Communications Center.

“After 31 years, it was time to move on,” Crawford said. “And I’m really excited to be coming in on the ground floor of the new Emergency Communications Center.”

As one of his last acts, Capt. Crawford broke some news about the selection process to replace Chief Charles Samarra. He confirmed rumors that the selection process has been narrowed to three candidates: Deputy Chief Charles Cook, Deputy Chief Blaine Corale and Deputy Chief Dave Baker — and he offered his opinion on the matter.

“One of these three will be the next police chief,” Crawford said. “I like all three, and I wish there was a way to put them in a blender to combine their best qualities. But it’s a competition, and that decision is in the process of being made.”

A NATIVE of Farmingdale, N.Y., Crawford graduated from Farmingdale High School in 1968. He joined the Navy and sailed across the globe, swabbing decks in the Caribbean Sea and conducting war maneuvers in the Atlantic Ocean. But he knew that Navy life was not for him.

“The motto of the Navy back then was ‘Join the Navy and see the world,’ and that’s what I did,” Crawford said. “But — even then — I knew that I wanted to be a police officer.”

When his tour of duty was over with the Navy, Crawford sold life insurance on Long Island for a brief period of time. It was another career he wasn’t cut out for, and Crawford described himself as a “lousy” insurance salesman. After his marriage to Michele Malanga, a high-school classmate, Crawford decided that he needed to jettison his insurance job.

“I wasn’t dedicated to it,” Crawford said. “There was too much free time. If it was a beautiful day, I would end up on the golf course.”

CRAWFORD CAME to Alexandria in the summer of 1975. He had applied to several police departments across the country — eventually deciding to accept an invitation to the city, where his twin brother Pete had just signed on as a beat cop. He vividly remembers the day he was sworn-in at City Hall.

“Back then, the police headquarters was at 400 North Pitt Street,” Crawford said. “So I walked from City Hall back to to police headquarters and that was it.”

As a new recruit, Officer Crawford took the evening shift on walking patrol. The city was experiencing a rash of street crime along Slaters Lane and King Street at the time, and Crawford said that he and other new officers were given a high-profile walking beat increase visibility.

“Upper King Street was very different then. There were a lot of bars, a lot of drunks and a lot of disorderlies,” Crawford said. “We had a lot of street crime at that time.”

WITHIN FIVE YEARS of walking the beat, Crawford became a detective in the Criminal Investigations Section. He spent three years investigating property crimes, a job that Crawford said was much more stressful than walking the beat.

“It was the kind of job that you bring home with you at night,” he said. “And it was a very competitive environment. There was a lot of pressure to close your caseload.”

After being promoted to sergeant, Crawford went back out on the street as a supervisor. He would often work the midnight shift, which turned out to be a good thing for his growing family. The unusual hours gave him ample time to devote to his young children.

“I was able to go to all of the school functions, and I got home in time to walk the kids to the school bus stop in the mornings,” he said. “From a family standpoint, the midnight shift was the best. Of course, I was a little tired. But it worked out.”

In the early 1990s, Crawford moved to the city’s new emergency communications center to run the midnight shift. At the time, the Police Department was in the process of moving to 2003 Mill Road — and Crawford was eager to help inaugurate the new communications technology.

When he was promoted to sergeant, he was placed in charge of the Property Crimes Section — a part of the force that he knew well from his days as a detective. A few years later, Crawford took a position as the administrative aide to the assistant chief. This job sent him to City Hall to be a liaison with the mayor and the city manager’s office.

“It gave me a good insight into the workings of our city,” Crawford said. “I got to see the politics of how things got done.”

MOVING FROM the world of property crime to the realm of government brought more than culture shock. Crawford had to learn how to write memorandums, the common currency of public life. He said that it was a steep learning curve, but Deputy City Manager Michele Evans helped him make the transition.

“I would write something, and she would send it back to me with red marks all over it,” Crawford said. “I wasn’t a writer. I was a police officer. So this was new to me.”

Crawford said that Evans gave him a crash course in good grammar, crisp writing and rhetorical precision. It was an education that he still appreciates — especially now that reporters and editors dissect his every word.

“She basically taught me how to write. I really learned a lot from her,” Crawford said. “She demanded precision. And after a while, I demanded precision too.”

THE TRIAL BY fire at City Hall gave Crawford all the tools he needed to head the public information office at the Police Department — a position that opened when Steve Mason became commander of the Communications Section in 1995. Mason, who is now a special assistant to the city manager, said that Crawford’s willingness to be open with the media made him an outstanding spokesman.

“I think that he’s probably the best public information officer that the Police Department has ever had,” Mason said. “I consider him smooth and confident — even with that Long Island drawl.”

In his first year as commander of the office, Crawford was handling a huge workload. After putting in months of overtime, he was able to persuade the chief to hire the police department’s first civilian public information officer: Amy Bertsch. She said that the office will not be the same without Crawford.

“I’m still in denial,” Bertsch said. “I wish I could work with him for 10 more years.”

For his part, Crawford displayed a trademark sense of modesty and decorum.

“Everyone is replaceable,” he said. “But it’s got to be the right fit.”

CRAWFORD WILL HAVE a hand in selecting his replacement, and candidates have already begun the application process. He said that his successor must have certain personality traits: an outgoing personality, a task-oriented work ethic, a willingness to work long hours and credit within the agency.

“Some people freeze up when a television camera is turned on,” Crawford said. “Essentially, you become the voice of the Police Department. And if you get called into work when you’re on your way to a movie, you’ve got to go.”

Crawford said the hardest part of the job is working a crime scene when an officer has been shot or keeping focus during prolonged hostage negotiations, when he was put infront of a gaggle of reporters for hourly updates.

“They have an agenda and you have an agenda,” he said of dealing with the media. “It’s like a chess game, and you’ve got to preposition your moves.”

HIS NEW POSITION in Arlington County will bring him back to familiar territory — a state-of-the art emergency communications center that is in the process of being built. Crawford will participate in opening the new facility, which will be in Arlington’s Courthouse Square.

“They are building it as we speak,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s last day in his current position will be Sept. 1. He will begin working in Arlington on Sept. 5.