Inside the Alexandria Police Department: Crisis

Inside the Alexandria Police Department: Crisis

An occasional series, drawn from the Alexandria Citizen’s Police Academy.

Alexandria’s Civil Disturbance Unit displays shield and pepper-ball tactics.

Alexandria’s Civil Disturbance Unit displays shield and pepper-ball tactics. Photo by Vernon Miles.

The Alexandria Citizens’ Police Academy is a 10-week course hosted by the Alexandria Police Department (APD) to offer citizens a better understanding of how the department works. Throughout the course, participants sit in on emergency calls and ride along with police officers on patrol. In the sixth week of the course, citizens learned more about how the Alexandria Police react to crisis situations, including hostage situations and riot control.

When the police arrived at the Carlyle apartment complex to serve a warrant, one of the officers heard the man inside rack his gun and tell the officers to go away. Soon, police were swarming around the building, and a late night rainy standoff was underway.

In the middle of emergencies, Captain Jamie Bridgeman with the Special Operations Bureau says the Incident Commander is in charge. It’s a clear distinction of leadership that keeps the situation from being muddied by tangled chains of command, and afterwards can help provide clarity regarding responsibility for the incident’s outcome.


Alexandria’s Civil Disturbance Unit Officer in Riot Gear.

Much of this job involved juggling several competing needs. The public needs to be made aware of what’s going on at a site, but Bridgeman said the suspects more often than not are monitoring the news and social media to find out what’s going on. The area around the incident needs to be cleared of anyone who might be in danger, and yet the police also aim to minimize the public impact of this crowd control. In the Carlyle incident, police cleared the rooms adjacent to the suspect and above and below, but encouraged others in the apartment complex to remain in place. Given that the suspect had a window view overlooking the courtyard, the police also had to close off the main streets in the area. But in a few hours, the Federal Courthouse next door was going to be opening, and people would start trickling in and out of the area to go to work.

Eventually, the police used a roommate’s key to enter the building. They found the suspect in a back room of the apartment, still armed. They flooded the room with a pepper-spray gas, and the snipers across the street saw that he went over to the window to get a fresh breath, at which point the police entered the room and arrested him.

Alexandria police say, on average they see an average of just one or two incidents like this each year.


According to Lt. Scott Patterson, one of the first recorded hostage situations takes place in chapter 14 of the book of Genesis in the Bible. Abram’s nephew Lot is kidnapped and Abram gathers his followers to defeat the enemy King and bring his nephew back. Between that time and the 1970s, the primary reaction to an active hostage situation was to use lethal force to end it and to consider the captives expendable. However, during the 1970s, a series of incidents like the Attica Riot and the Munich Olympics forced police in the U.S. to begin to reconsider their tactics. One legal case, Downs v. United States, had the widow of a man killed in a hostage standoff successfully sue the government for failing to try and find a peaceful resolution. Patterson said hostage negotiation was born out of that legal case.

The trick to hostage negotiation isn’t knowing how to talk, it’s knowing how to listen. More often than not, the suspects in these cases just want someone to talk to, and the hostage negotiators give them an outlet. One negotiator, a primary, is ideally on the phone with the suspect and gives them their undivided attention. A coach, meanwhile, listens in on the conversation and offers advice on sticky notes to the primary.

Sometimes it can be difficult to establish that initial connection. Police try to use a phone as the primary form of communication, but they will use whatever means they can if that fails, including at one point passing notes to and from a suspect under the door of an apartment. During the incident at Carlyle, one police hostage negotiator’s first time on the job, they were unable to make contact with the person inside the apartment. The negotiator had to keep talking and trying to keep up a one-sided conversation. This lasted over five hours, only for them to discover at the end that the suspect hadn’t even been in the room.

Other outside factors can complicate negotiations. Deputy Chief Chris Wemple recalled two instances where police were working to talk down a person attempting suicide off of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The negotiators would be talking to the suspect about getting them to step down, but then people passing in traffic that had gotten backed up would shout for the man to jump.

“It’s empathy,” said Patterson. “Identification of, not with, their motives, feeling, or situation. It’s not sympathy or being nice.”

Most often, someone taking hostages is in a heightened emotional state, so the Hostage Negotiations Team works to bring them back to a reasonable level. That can include bargaining, the most common chip being food, to possibly trade for hostages.


Alexandria has not had a riot in recent memory. The closest the city has come concerned an Occupy Wall Street rally that was set to take place outside City Hall, but like many politically frustrated and disenfranchised millennials across the country, the police showed up only to find that very few others had, so they packed up their gear and went home.

But, with the idea that it’s better to be safe than sorry, Captain Shannon Soreano said the unit was founded by Chief Earl Cook as a reaction to crises like those in Ferguson and Baltimore. It’s a 52 unit group, many of whom are also patrol officers, and Soreano said the group’s main use so far has been mutual aid to other cities and counties.

For the Civil Disturbance Unit, the priority is to protect public safety. When facing an unruly crowd, the unit targets instigators to arrest, coordinating to open up and scoop them into the police lines if they get close. The unit’s purpose is to deal with riots, which often entail citizens throwing objects at the police. In Virginia, throwing an object at a police officer is usually considered assault and a felony, warranting use of force, but force protocol during a riot is a little different for the Civil Disturbance Unit. With shields and heavy armor on, being pelted with trash does not merit use of deadly force. The unit is equipped with a variety of other gadgets, like a gun that looks nearly identical to a paintball gun, to disperse pepper spray into a crowd.

Behind the police headquarters, the Civil Disturbance Unit displayed the tactics in action. For the sake of the other officers and the citizens, real pepper spray was not used.

Next week, the Citizens’ Police Academy meets the Alexandria K-9 Unit.