On Tuesday, Alexandria Police Chief Charles Samarra sent a letter to City Manager Jim Hartmann announcing his intention to retire. In the three-page letter, Samarra said that he plans to leave by Aug. 1.
“While I could continue a stellar job of performing the typical duties of a department head, I cannot continue to work under the threat of having another of my officers killed in the line of duty or putting them in the position of killing another,” Samarra wrote. “While I was hoping that my personal feelings would subside, I know that daily occurrences such as in Fairfax would only serve to rob my life of the happiness that I otherwise enjoy.”
On May 8, a Fairfax County police station became the scene of tragedy when a deranged 18-year-old opened fire on several police officers as they were in the midst of a shift change. One officer died that day and another died from injuries sustained in the attack on Wednesday — just hours after Samarra made his final decision to leave the force.
“My 39 years of law enforcement experience have been wrought with more than my share of officer-related tragedy, tragedies that have a personal and long-lasting effect,” Samarra wrote. “This is probably the only example of a situation where gaining experience takes your strength rather than making you stronger.”
Samarra became chief of police in 1990, a time when the organization was in danger of losing its accreditation and beset by negative press. In his letter, Samarra listed several accomplishments during his time as chief: bringing new technology to the department, establishing control over the budget, maintaining accreditation and reducing the crime rate.
“Chief Samarra’s leadership and commitment to excellence have enabled the department to respond to a wide range of police and crime issues resulting in a significant and sustained reduction in the city’s crime rate,” wrote Hartmann in a memorandum to the City Council. “While I understand his desire to retire, the city government and the Alexandria community will miss him very much.”
CHARLES SAMARRA, 60, a native of Pittsburgh, is married and has one adult son. He became police chief during a time of great transition in the department, with the organization going through three chiefs in three years. At his July 9, 1990 swearing-in ceremony, then-Mayor Jim Moran kept the formality to a minimum.
“Chief, you have our complete support,” Mayor Moran said. “Period.”
The Alexandria Gazette Packet’s coverage of Samarra’s swearing-in depicted the event as a victory for police unions, who had a strained relationship with previous police chiefs. The newspaper described his style as a welcome reprise from “labor unrest” that was created by the “management-dominated tenure” of his predecessor.
“The chief deliberately steered clear of any direct reference to the communications problems with employee groups and the city administration that plagued the two-year tenure of former Police Chief Gary Leonard, but he did unveil a four-point management plan that pointedly addressed the issue,” the Gazette Packet reported. “As part of what he called his ‘framework’ for the future, Samarra announced his intention to increase rank-and-file involvement in decision making; improve communication with department heads and the city manager; put more supervisors and officers on patrol and deepen the commitment to community oriented policing.”
LEONARD LEFT to take a position as police chief in Sand City, Utah. His time in Alexandria was viewed by many as contentious, and he angered several officers with a seeming indifference to employee groups and a reluctance to attend roll calls. One action that particularly angered many rank-and-file officers was when Leonard videotaped a message to be viewed by officers during roll call. His leadership also included financial turmoil, and Leonard left the department $500,000 over budget in fiscal year 1990.
“I inherited a budget and culture that had been consistently overspending by millions of dollars a year and I brought my first and subsequent years in on target,” Samarra wrote in his letter of resignation. “From the day that I took office, I have worked successfully to keep my department’s ‘laundry’ within the organization and to keep negative internal grievances in house.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said that Samarra’s tenure will be remembered for a sharp reduction in the crime rate, a drastic improvement in the technological capabilities of the department and the development of a community-policing effort.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him,” Sengel said. “He’s done a lot to improve the department.”
Before being appointed as Alexandria’s police chief, Samarra was a 23-year veteran of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. Former Washington Police Chief Isaac Fulwood called Samarra “Mr. Fix-It” because of his penchant for solving difficult labor disputes and organizational problems.
“When he got here the morale was very low, and he turned that around,” said police spokesman Capt. John Crawford. “I think he wanted to go out on a high note.”
Samarra spent years working his way up the chain in the Washington police force, beginning in 1967 on the patrol beat in Anacostia and ending his tenure in 1990 as assistant chief in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau.
He has a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice from American University and a master’s degree in Strategic Communications and Leadership from Seton Hall University. He received professional training from the F.B.I. Academy, where he graduated first in his class, the U.S. Secret Service Dignitary Protection School and the International Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Development Program. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Law Enforcement Experts and a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners. His professional affiliations include memberships in the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum and the F.B.I. National Academy Associates.