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Snapshots in Blue

New book explores the history of the Alexandria Police Department.

In a book filled with memorable photographs, Norman Grimm has a clear favorite. It's on page 93, and shows his father, George, pictured with other members of the Alexandria Police Department's pistol team around 1947. Grimm's father, who created the boys' camp band, was a member of the force from 1927 to 1965.

"These guys were better than everyone else," said Grimm, examining the photo at a recent luncheon of the Retired Police, Fire and Sheriff Association. "They would compete against other departments for a trophy."

"Alexandria Police Department" is the newest installment in Arcadia Press's vastly popular Images of America Series. Compiled by Amy Bertsch, the police department's public information officer, the 125-page book has a wealth of images and amusing anecdotes.

Grimm followed in his father's footsteps, serving in the department from 1953 to 1980. He remembers the old police station at City Hall, which stretched along the Fairfax Street side of the building. Roll calls were at 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. in the General District Courtroom on the second floor. Looking at an old picture of the station, Grimm is surprised that the entire force could fit in such confines.

"There's a lot of good information in here," Grimm said, tapping on the top of the book's spine. "I think Amy did a wonderful job of putting this together."

BERTSCH'S HISTORY of policing in Alexandria starts with the city's founding in the 1700s. As early as 1780, the city government employed several daytime policemen and two night watchmen. By 1797, Alexandria had organized a full night watch with watchmen who were paid an annual salary of $150. According to a City Council document charging the men with their duties, night watchmen were "to patrol and take charge of such disorderly and suspicious persons."

In the early 1870s, the city's public-safety system was reorganized with daylight police force being dismantled and the night watchmen program discontinued. In its place, the Alexandria Police Department was created on July 15, 1870 by an act of the city's board of aldermen and common council. By the end of July, the force consisted of a captain, a lieutenant and 19 policemen. Each officer was required to patrol his entire beat four times each shift and was specifically forbidden to linger on his route. Bertsch's book follows the officers through several different kinds of uniforms, each one seeming more and more military in tone.

Traffic fatalities increased at such a rapid pace in the 1940s that Alexandria police officers struggled to find ways to cope. One photograph in the book shows two officers placing a sign at City Hall that read "265 Days Since Alexandria's third traffic fatality. Help police to better this record: Be alert, don't get hurt. Alexandria Police Department." The picture appears in a chapter titled "Traffic Safety" that features two gruesome accident scenes. On page 71, readers will catch a glimpse of that awful day in 1962 when a driver lost control of his Buick and slammed into the Lerner's.

The 1950s brought more land annexed by the city, doubling the area for the Alexandria Police Department to patrol. As the force grew, patrol cars soon outnumbered motorcycles. And the cramped old police station at City Hall became too small. So city leaders built a new high-tech headquarters at 400 North Pitt St. with holding cells, a radio room, a parking lot and its own gas pumps.

BY THE 1960S, the department's canine unit was helping track down felons and lost children. Officers received training in criminal law, physical fitness, search warrants, arrest techniques, firearms use, emergency vehicle use and traffic safety. But the decade was also a confusing one, when the civil rights movement challenged longstanding practices. To help ease some of the racial tension, the Police Department created a community-relations team.

"In the 1960s, they sent us to all kinds of specialized training," said Clarence Webb, who served on the force from 1956 to 1984. "This was a time when we were really trying to cut down on peeping toms and prowlers."

By the end of the turbulent 1960s, much of Old Town was infested with crime as abandoned old buildings became magnets for vice and crime. The department then focused its energy on shutting down gambling operations, wine houses and unlicensed massage parlors. Yet gun violence was on the rise, and the annual homicide rate began to climb to double digits when the crack cocaine epidemic hit in the 1980s.

"This was the jumpout unit," said Ken Howard, who served on the force from 1969 to 1997. "We made so many arrests in the first few hours of the shift that we'd have to shut down operations to get all the paperwork done."

That kind of dedication can be found throughout "Alexandria Police Department."

"This is really their story," Bertsch said "I hope they like it."