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An encampment has taken shape in recent years near the Sunrise Assisted Living in Reston (staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

A tent encampment housing between 20 and 35 individuals in the woods between Inova’s emergency room and Sunrise Assisted Living Center in Reston may soon fold.

Fairfax County officials hope to open up a temporary overflow shelter in a government building in the Reston Town Center North area to accommodate the people who’ve been living in the tents.

“No Trespassing” signs are set to go up around the encampment, which is located on county property, in the coming weeks, as the county’s hypothermia shelters close their doors for the 2023-2024 winter season on Sunday (March 31).

The Reston encampment is the largest one in the county, according to Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn. Cornerstones — the nonprofit that runs Reston’s Embry Rucker Community Shelter — and its outreach teams plan to discuss their options with residents as the transition is phased in over the coming weeks.

“It’s really an unmanaged campground,” Alcorn said yesterday (Wednesday) in a call with media. “You know, if you walk through and talk to people, that’s really how its functioning at this point. So, I have concerns about, frankly, the safety of the folks living there now and the personal safety.”

Many details of the overflow shelter, including when it will open and how many people it can fit, remain to be determined, but it’s intended to help wind down activities in the encampment that has occupied the hill for years.

In some cases, neighbors have complained about the encampment, though data on how many police calls have been placed wasn’t immediately available.

According to Alcorn, there have been issues at the Reston Regional Library and reports of break-ins in some of the surrounding communities, but he cautioned that it would be “unfair” to attribute all incidents to the encampment.

Sunrise recently put up a fence around their property, creating a buffer between their property and the encampment.

Alcorn said he asked staff for an “effective and humane” plan for winding down the camp. He emphasized that its future is already in limbo because that property and the rest of Reston Town Center North are slated for major redevelopment. Plans call for a new Embry Rucker shelter and a new library, though an earlier agreement with a private developer fell through.

The encampment first began as a handful of tents but has since grown substantially. Reston Strong, a local nonprofit organization, began offering support to the area, providing food, tents and other supplies.

The organization launched a Neighbors in Tents campaign in 2022 to raise awareness about homelessness in Fairfax County. A temporary tent community was set up in front of the North County Governmental Center (1801 Cameron Glen Drive) as an alternative after the county’s hypothermia and COVID-19 emergency shelters closed for the season.

The organization called for permanent solutions to address homelessness in the county, which saw a 10% increase in people experiencing homelessness from 2022 to 2023. The results of the county’s most recent point-in-time count — an annual survey of the number of people without housing — are expected to be released in May.

Reston Strong says it welcomes the plans for a temporary overflow shelter to assist “our most vulnerable residents,” but it still has “many unaddressed concerns and questions.”

“We have not received answers from the county about when the shelter will be ready or if there is enough capacity for the Hill residents and those already in hypothermia, but we have been told via a letter from Supervisor Alcorn that no trespassing sign will be posted and we are not allowed to set up new tents,” Reston Strong organizer Sarah Selvaraj-Dsouza said. “The Hill will be closed in the near future for the planned land swap with Inova. We are hoping for a timely resolution that meets everyone’s needs.”

Alcorn said the logistics of the overflow shelter are still being ironed out.

News of a plan to clear the encampment comes as the county’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority prepares to implement a $20 million agreement that will provide housing for those in need, specifically individuals with serious mental illnesses.

Starting in May, the county will receive 300 new supportive rental assistance vouchers for residents over three years and three new staff positions to manage the program.

Alcorn says both initiatives are the beginning of important steps to addressing chronic homelessness.

It’s going to make a big dent in the problem,” he said of the voucher program.

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

Settlement money from vape-maker Juul will help Fairfax County Public Schools bolster security at some high schools.

The Fairfax County School Board is set to vote tomorrow (Thursday) on adjustments to the school system’s fiscal year 2024 budget, including allocations of the $3.2 million it received from Juul after settling a class-action lawsuit over the company’s flavored e-cigarettes last year.

In a presentation to the board on March 7, FCPS staff recommended using the funding to “install security scanning technology at select high schools” as part of a new pilot program. If approved, the funds would add onto $3 million designated for the program in August, FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leigh Burden noted.

However, FCPS has been tight-lipped about the pilot, including on the technology being implemented and how many schools are participating.

“At this time, we are not prepared to provide details of the program to the public,” an FCPS spokesperson told FFXnow. “This information will be released when, and as appropriate, to include the identification of schools. Safety and security physical and technical systems are needed to assist in operational safety planning.”

FCPS confirmed the safety and security screening pilot is separate from the security vestibules that it has been adding at dozens of schools around the county. Prioritized by the school board in response to the May 24 shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the vestibules add an extra layer of verification for visitors seeking to enter school buildings.

Last April, Superintendent Michelle Reid detailed several other security measures that FCPS was either testing or considering, including vape sensors in bathrooms, panic alarm systems and a weapons screening system.

At the time, FCPS said the weapons screening system was in the pilot phase. It’s unclear if that’s the same as the screening technology pilot now poised to get additional funding.

The school board also approved funding in December for exterior security cameras at nine elementary schools, along with money to support continuous employee background checks.

Other changes proposed as part of the FY 2024 third-quarter review include a transfer of $3.3 million from a reserve fund to a fund dedicated to supporting FCPS’ summer school programs.

“Summer school focuses on executive functioning, acceleration of reading and mathematics foundation skills, enrichment programs at the elementary and middle school level, and course credit recovery to ensure on-time graduation at the high school level,” staff said in a summary of the third-quarter review.

The money will support programs for 35,000 students at 73 sites, according to Burden. FCPS had set aside a total of $6.7 million in August for enhanced summer learning programs, but that was before staff finalized the locations and enrollment projections.

The budget is also being adjusted to reflect a grant received for food services, new federal funding for adult education and an $143.5 million increase in “additional contractual commitments” for bond-funded renovation projects at Bren Mar Park, Brookfield and Lees Corner elementary schools.

A crossing for Cunningham Park Elementary School in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

(Updated at 4:20 p.m. on 3/25/2024) Schools in Vienna, Herndon and Fort Belvoir have or are at risk of losing their crossing guards due to budget constraints facing the Fairfax County Police Department.

The Vienna Town Council and Mayor Linda Colbert were informed at a recent work session that the county will no longer provide crossing guards for any schools in the town’s limits because of a lack of funding, Councilmember Howard Springsteen shared at the council’s meeting on Monday (March 18).

The nine affected crossings would instead need to be covered by the Vienna Police Department, which doesn’t have sufficient staffing to handle the added duties, according to Springsteen, whose comments were first reported by Patch.

“Schools are not our responsibility. It’s a county responsibility,” he said. “…I know the mayor’s been working on this and the council’s been pretty upset about this. We’re working on that, but people need to be aware of some of the issues we deal with behind the scenes.”

Vienna isn’t the only place affected. The FCPD said it would also eliminate coverage for one crossing each in Herndon and Fort Belvoir, according to a letter from Vienna Police Chief Jim Morris to Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis.

The Herndon Police Department says it was notified late last fall that FCPD was removing its officers from a crossing at Herndon Elementary School, effective Jan. 1. Because only one spot was affected, the town was able to fill the gap.

“Herndon does not have a school crossing guard program, but we take the safety of our kids very seriously,” HPD spokesperson Lisa Herndon said. “Unlike the Town of Vienna, which has been left with multiple vacancies as a result of the crossing guards being removed, we have only one crossing and have managed to cover it with patrol officers each day.”

Fort Belvoir has also taken over crossing guard duties at its on-base school, according to March 19 memo from the FCPD to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The crosswalk covered by an FCPD officer was across Meeres Road in front of Fort Belvoir Upper School and the Child Development Center, Fort Belvoir Public Affairs told FFXnow.

The Army installation says it’s “currently working with FCPD, Fairfax County Public Schools, and Fort Belvoir Elementary school leadership to discuss a way ahead.”

“As we gather more information, Fort Belvoir will be in a better position to decide on the best way to ensure crosswalk safety,” Fort Belvoir Public Affairs said. “The safety of our children remains our number one priority.”

The FCPD indicated in a statement to FFXnow that discussions about how to handle the school crossings in Vienna are still in the preliminary stages.

“Given the primary jurisdiction responsibilities afforded to the Town of Vienna for law enforcement and public safety, the FCPD has engaged the Vienna Police Department in preliminary discussions surrounding school crossing coverages,” the department said. “As our conversations continue, all school crossing coverages will be handled by the FCPD.” Read More

The Fairfax County Police Department is working with a company to automatically review body-worn camera footage (via FCPD)

The Fairfax County Police Department will utilize automated technology to analyze body-worn camera footage in real time.

Seeking to improve its training and interactions with the public, the FCPD is the first jurisdiction in Virginia to sign on with Truleo, the Chicago-based technology company announced yesterday (Tuesday).

According to a press release, the technology uses artificial intelligence to process body camera footage, automatically detecting events like use of force, pursuits and frisks. The technology also screens for “professional and unprofessional” language by officers “so supervisors can then praise or review officers’ conduct.” 

“We are proud to begin our work with the Fairfax County Police Department and Chief Kevin Davis,” Truleo co-founder and CEO Anthony Tassone said. “Through our work with various law enforcement agencies across the country, we’ve seen how implementing body-worn analytics helps to increase public trust and ensures that police officers meet not just law enforcement standards but also the expectations of the communities they serve.”

Launched in 2021, Truleo uses technology that Tassone and co-founder Tejas Shastry originally developed on Wall Street in 2013 “to analyze employee phone calls and text conversations,” according to the company’s website.

Since launching, the company has partnered with the FBI’s National Academy Associates program and numerous local police agencies, starting with the Alameda police in California in 2022. Other partners include the New York City Police Department and the Paterson Police Department in New Jersey, but police in Seattle discontinued their program in February 2023 after a police union leader was recorded laughing about the victim of a fatal police shooting.

Truleo’s platform generates transcripts of audio recordings captured by body cameras, using natural language processing to detect words or phrases that may signal a notable interaction. A searchable report is then sent to the officer’s supervisor.

Truleo asserts that its technology can reduce workloads for law enforcement agencies, which otherwise analyze less than 1% of body camera footage due to limited resources. However, some civil rights advocates and researchers have raised concerns about privacy and the potential for the technology to be misused.

Studies have found that AI-powered speech recognition tools are less accurate at interpreting Black voices and people speaking a language other than English, since they’re often trained on biased data.

In Fairfax County, police supervisors can’t actively review footage from body-worn cameras due to the department’s auditing process.

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors safety and security committee meeting yesterday (Tuesday), Police Chief Kevin Davis said the combined power of the FCPD’s technological commitments will provide greater transparency on community sentiment and officer performance.

In response to Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik’s concerns about privacy, Davis emphasized that Truleo won’t activate unless the body-worn cameras are turned on. 

“The Truleo is only on when the body worn camera is activated,” Davis said. “When the body camera is not on, Truleo will not be on.”

The FCPD already uses My90, a community engagement tool that uses a post-incident survey to complainants requesting police help. It also has an automated speed enforcement helicopter and drones, per Davis’s presentation.

The department is also expanding its use of automatic license plate readers, which were first tested in November 2022. Davis said the program has quickly become a model for the region, allowing the FCPD to promote regional collaboration and provide officers with more information.

In 2023, the department recovered 134 vehicles and arrested 222 individuals with the help of license plate reader alerts. The arrests have led to 480 felony charges and 244 charges classified as misdemeanors. The FCPD was also able to find 19 missing persons.

The McLean Volunteer Fire Department has added a third ambulance, on the right, to its vehicle fleet (courtesy MVFD)

For the first time since it was established in 1921, the McLean Volunteer Fire Department (MVFD) has expanded its vehicle fleet to three ambulances.

The newest ambulance began operating out of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s Station 1 (1455 Laughlin Avenue) on Feb. 21, but it will get an official, public reveal this Saturday (March 2) at the annual “I Love McLean” celebration.

Sponsored by the McLean Citizens Association (MCA), this year’s “I Love McLean” festivities will also include musical performances, light refreshments, and arts and crafts. The event will take place at the McLean Community Center (1234 Ingleside Avenue) from 1-4:30 p.m., though the ambulance will only be on site until 2:30 p.m.

MVFD officials initially planned to invite community members to see the ambulance at the station before realizing that they already had a perfect opportunity for a showcase on their calendar.

“The ‘I Love McLean’ event is a big deal, and there’s lots of folks,” MVFD President Patricia Moynihan said. “So, we essentially just piggybacked on it and thought, ‘Well, we’re going to be there anyway.’ Let’s just take it out of service and let folks know that we’re going to be there.”

According to Moynihan, having a third ambulance will boost MVFD’s capacity to respond to emergencies not just in McLean, but anywhere in Fairfax County. It will also provide more flexibility for training personnel and continuing service even when a vehicle is taken out of rotation for repairs or regular maintenance.

She noted that the capacity expansion doesn’t require additional staff, though more volunteers are always welcome.

“We’re super lucky in McLean in that we have a full-time career staff, and then we have a total of 80 volunteers, and we have the largest number of paramedic volunteers…of the county volunteer stations,” Moynihan said. “…We’re always looking for new folks, trying to increase our ranks and our capabilities, but we can staff all three [ambulances] between the career and the volunteer folks at this point.”

Thanks to a $38,496 grant from the McLean Community Foundation, the new V011-2022 Road Rescue Ultra Medic has a Stryker Power-LOAD system that mechanically raises and lowers the cot used to load patients. The technology makes the process safer for both patients and first responders, who can develop knee and back issues from moving and lifting people, Moynihan says.

One of the department’s older ambulances — a 2018 Road Rescue Ultra Medic — also features a power-loading system, but the oldest one, which dates back to 2015, still has a model cot that Moynihan hopes to get replaced.

Overall, the ambulance cost $307,000, an amount partly covered by both large and small community donations. The biggest contribution came from the Woman’s Club of McLean, which raised $13,000 with a Kitchen and Garden Tour that it organized last April.

MVFD also got the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ approval to pursue a loan of up to $250,000.

Even as they celebrate their latest vehicle acquisition, MVFD leaders are working to raise funds for the next one: a new fire engine that has already been ordered but isn’t expected to arrive until at least 2026.

Moynihan says the cost of that apparatus has ballooned to over $1 million — twice as much as an estimate shared last summer. MVFD will be responsible for 51% of those costs, and Fairfax County will pay for the rest under an agreement similar to the one that enabled the department to buy its existing engine.

The department’s current plan is to keep both engines and use the new one as the main call responder, freeing up the older engine for community events. However, Moynihan cautioned that those plans could change by the time the new engine is available.

“We will have a second secondary engine that we can use, or if there’s something big that’s going on…like the explosion in Sterling in Loudoun County, we would then have an extra engine that we could lend to whoever needed it,” she said.

Luther Jackson Middle School entrance (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Luther Jackson Middle School students will have to wait for their first dance of the year.

The Valentine’s Day dance scheduled for this afternoon (Wednesday) has been postponed after threats of gun violence at the Merrifield school (3020 Gallows Road) were discovered earlier this week.

While Fairfax County police say there “does not appear to be any substantial threat at this time,” Luther Jackson officials announced the postponement yesterday (Tuesday) “out of an abundance of caution.”

“As soon as we have a new date selected, we will let everyone know,” the school said in a newsletter bulletin. “All tickets already purchased will be honored on the new event date once selected. Regular after-school activities will proceed as usual, and previously canceled activities have been added back on to the signup form.”

The first threat came in the form of graffiti found in a school restroom late Monday (Feb. 12) afternoon, Luther Jackson principal Raven Jones said in a message sent to parents at 8:14 p.m. that day. The graffiti made a “vague” threat that there would be a shooting at the school on “Thursday.”

“We notified the Office of Safety and Security and the Fairfax County Police who have responded, checked the school and begun an investigation,” Jones wrote. “Fairfax County Police continue to investigate but do not believe that there is a valid threat to the school based solely on this graffiti.”

As a precaution, additional security personnel were assigned to the school yesterday morning.

However, a second anonymous threat was found circulating on social media, claiming that there would be a shooting and possibly a bomb at Luther Jackson Middle School this Thursday, Feb. 15. The message appears to have first emerged on Instagram before getting shared on Twitter.

In an update sent to parents at 9:21 a.m. yesterday, Jones said school officials were “aware of the additional social media post also referencing a school shooting on Thursday.”

Fairfax County Police and our Office of Safety and Security are actively investigating. I do not have any further information to share at this time but will update you as soon as we are able. Additional safety and security staff will be monitoring our school.

The safety of our students is our primary concern, and we will always investigate these incidents as soon as we are made aware.

If you or your student has any information to share about this situation, please contact our Office of Safety at 571-423-2000 or through our anonymous safety tip line that you can access online, by text or by phone.

The Fairfax County Police Department says its investigation into the social media threat is ongoing, though there isn’t believed to be a “substantial” threat at this time.

“We urge the community to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity promptly,” the FCPD said. “Additionally, we encourage individuals to refrain from sharing unverified information on social media platforms to prevent unnecessary panic. The Fairfax County Police Department is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all individuals, and we will continue to work diligently to resolve this matter.”

Fairfax County Animal Protection Police officers recently attended the release of a bald eagle they found injured in Fairfax Station (via FCPD)

A plan to consolidate the duties of Fairfax County’s Department of Animal Sheltering (DAS) and Animal Protection Police (APP) is drawing some pushback from the local police union.

Last month, county staff proposed to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that DAS take charge of both animal care services and enforcement of animal protection laws, which would be carried out by animal control officers (ACOs). The recommendation came from both DAS and Fairfax County Police Department leaders.

However, the county’s chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association (SSPBA), the elected union for the FCPD, argues the planned consolidation would have substantial negative impacts on the department’s existing animal protection police officers (APPOs), the community, pets, and wildlife.

“ACOs have different authorities and are not considered law enforcement officers under Virginia code, which would be a fundamental change to the position as it has been historically implemented in Fairfax County,” SSPBA Fairfax County President Steve Monahan told FFXnow.

Under the proposal, animal control officers would have a similar scope of authority as APPOs and handle all calls for service, including investigations of animal cruelty, search warrants, and rabies vaccinations. Currently, the FCPD’s Animal Protection Police unit handles encounters between humans and animals, including potential criminal situations.

ACOs would still get required training through the Commonwealth of Virginia, but they wouldn’t go through the police academy as APPOs do. The FCPD would continue to assist with criminal investigations.

“The proposed reduction of legal authority of ACOs within DAS’s model would inevitably result in FCPD patrol officers being tasked with additional animal-related responsibilities despite not having the same level of animal-related training as our current, fully sworn APPOs,” Monahan said.

The SSPBA says ACOs elsewhere in the state regularly fight for better pay, benefits, and training. The union believes Fairfax County’s proposal would exploit officers by requiring the same work with less pay.

“The county is proposing to replace the current structure with one that includes positions with less enforcement authority, less training, and fewer employee benefits and protections than their predecessors,” Monahan said. “Typically, whenever employees are asked to do the same work with less protections and benefits, this results in a high turnover rate and significant difficulty in filling vacancies.”

According to the staff presentation on Jan. 30, the county’s decision to split animal care and control functions between the DAS and the police department in 2016 didn’t “result in a successful integration of two separate departments working together to provide animal services.”

DAS currently manages two public animal shelters, one on West Ox Road in the Fairfax area and a second campus that opened in Lorton last October.

DAS Director Reasa Currier told FFXnow that having animal care and control services run by two departments with different missions is expensive and ineffective.

“Uniting animal care and control services under one department and utilizing Animal Control Officers will bring our county in alignment with surrounding jurisdictions and industry best practices, allow us to expand service delivery to our community, and reduce costs,” Currier said.

Additionally, she expressed confidence that ACOs can fully enforce animal protection laws, investigate cruelty and neglect, and rescue and transport wildlife.

DAS is also working closely with the SSPBA to ensure that APPOs aren’t negatively affected by the change and that their pay and retirement stay the same, according to Currier.

“This proposed model positions the county to meet the diverse needs of our residents and has worked successfully for decades in Alexandria, Arlington County, Prince William County, Loudoun County, the District of Columbia, Montgomery County and in jurisdictions nationwide,” Currier said.

If the proposal is included in the county executive’s advertised budget for fiscal year 2025, which will be presented on Feb. 20, the Board of Supervisors can then decide whether to adopt it.

Photo via FCPD

The Fairfax County Animal Shelter (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

Fairfax County wants to consolidate the duties of its Department of Animal Sheltering (DAS) and Animal Protection Police (APP).

Under the new arrangement, DAS would oversee both animal care services and enforcement of animal protection laws, which would be carried out by animal control officers (ACO), according to the recommendation from DAS and the Fairfax County Police Department.

Staff presented the proposed changes to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors at a safety and security committee meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 30).

In 2016, the county chose to split animal care and control functions between the DAS and the police department, a decision that did not “result in a successful integration of two separate departments working together to provide animal services,” the proposal says.

DAS currently manages two public animal shelters, one on West Ox Road in the Fairfax area and a second campus that opened in Lorton last October. The FCPD’s Animal Protection Police unit deals with encounters between humans and animals, including wildlife and potential criminal situations involving pets.

Under the proposed changes, ACOs would have “nearly the same” scope of authority as Animal Protection Police Officers (APPO) and would handle all calls for service, including for:

  • Issuing a summons, obtaining search and arrest warrants
  • Investigation of animal cruelty and neglect
  • Investigation of animal fighting
  • Investigation of animal bites
  • Response to sick, injured, or stray companion animals
  • Rabies vaccination and dog license enforcement

FCPD would continue to assist with criminal investigations, and ACOs would still get required training through the Commonwealth of Virginia, but they wouldn’t go through the police academy as APPOs do.

DAS Director Reasa Currier said having the two separate services has presented challenges for decades, and other jurisdictions that have consolidated their departments are seeing success.

“Jurisdictions that have recently moved to a consolidated model report significant benefits, including increased compliance rates, decreased shelter intake and a trusting community,” she said.

Describing animal services as a “highly specialized and technical field,” Currier said providing those services through one department “ensures we’re embracing industry best practices.”

She said the proposal would also enhance the health and safety of the community, and it’s in direct alignment with the county’s One Fairfax policy and equity goals.

In addition to their law enforcement duties, ACOs would connect pet owners with several services, such as free pet food and supplies as well as free and low-cost veterinary care.

“It is important to note that this proposed model does not replace enforcement for animal cruelty and neglect,” Currier added.

Deputy Chief of Police Lt. Robert Blakely said the changes would allow police officers to focus more on enforcing the law and would have very little impact on animals and people in the community.

“An animal control officer can enforce all of Virginia’s animal control laws as it pertains to domesticated animals running at-large and rabies vaccinations and county ordinances,” Blakely said.

Police Chief Kevin Davis said the people calling for service would see a similar process. For example, residents would still call the Department of Public Safety Communications through 911 or the non-emergency number, and the department would still dispatch animal control officers to respond to the scene.

“In the very few cases that police were needed to assist, police would then be added to that call, just as we are today,” Davis said.

The proposal could be included in the county executive’s advertised budget for fiscal year 2025, which will be presented on Feb. 20. The Board of Supervisors will then decide whether to adopt the reorganization.

A handgun with bullets (via Tom Def on Unsplash)

In an attempt to stem what Democratic lawmakers say is an epidemic of guns being stolen from vehicles, the Virginia Senate passed legislation Thursday that would create a $500 civil penalty for firearm owners who leave handguns on a car seat or other areas visible to passersby.

The legislation, one of the first gun control measures put to a full vote in either chamber this year, still needs to pass the House of Delegates and is likely at risk of being vetoed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin after the session ends. Still, the issue highlights the two parties’ diverging views on how to address gun crime, with Democrats trying to reduce the number of guns flowing onto the streets and Republicans calling for tougher enforcement of existing laws.

Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, said the bill he’s sponsoring uses a “light touch” to try to limit the supply of guns available to people who shouldn’t have them.

“We cannot have our vehicles here in the commonwealth act as vending machines for firearms,” Marsden said.

If authorities spot a vehicle with a visible handgun inside, the bill would allow them to have the vehicle towed. The law would apply to any “unattended motor vehicle” left on a public highway or public property where neither the driver nor a passenger can see it.

To illustrate the extent of the problem they’re attempting to solve, Democratic lawmakers pointed to recent statistics presented by the Richmond Police Department showing a major uptick in the number of guns stolen from vehicles in Virginia’s capital. There were 225 such thefts in 2017, according to city police, and 637 in 2022.

All 19 Republicans in the Senate voted against the bill, with the chamber’s 21 Democrats voting to pass it.

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, said the fundamental problem is people breaking into cars to begin with, adding that thieves could steal money or anything else of value left in a car and use the proceeds to buy a gun.

“We have to stop it at the beginning,” Peake said. “And that is by stopping people who are breaking into cars.”

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, argued the bill would have no impact because he’s doubtful many gun owners are so careless as to leave a handgun in plain sight for would-be thieves. The state should instead focus on different kinds of incentives for safe storage, Obenshain said, such as a bill passed in 2023 that created a $300 tax credit to help Virginians buy gun safes and lockboxes.

“We ought not be punishing victims of crimes,” Obenshain said.

Democratic senators said the law’s passage alone would send a message to Virginia gun owners to be more thoughtful about how they store firearms in vehicles.

“Responsible gun owners ought to get in the habit of putting their gun in the glovebox,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “Put it in the glovebox every time they get out of their car. Just make it a habit.”

Photo via Tom Def on Unsplash. This article was reported and written by the Virginia Mercury, and has been reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

Sen. Tim Kaine and Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano talk at Mackenzie’s Tunes and Tonics for a press conference on the county’s Taking Root diversion program (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Instead of jail-time, a restaurant job could be waiting for some individuals facing non-violent criminal charges in Fairfax County if they finish a newly launched job training program.

The Pathfinder Kitchen initiative unveiled Monday (Jan. 8) by the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney builds on the office’s nascent Taking Root diversion program, which offers case management, mental health and substance use assessments, affordable housing and other services to people accused of non-violent crimes in lieu of incarceration.

Starting this spring, participants will get an opportunity to learn culinary skills at Mackenzie’s Tunes and Tonics, which opened in Fairfax City last June, and earn the certification needed to work in the food service industry.

Like the county’s other diversion programs, Taking Root and its new culinary training option are designed to address the underlying causes of crime — in this case, poverty and barriers to employment — so individuals who’ve entered the criminal justice system are less likely to return.

“Pathfinder Kitchen is actually the next generation of that, actually getting people into restaurant training with certificates so they can get a job and build a career,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said. “That’s really, really important for public safety. It’s also the right thing to do.”

Launched in April 2022 by the prosecutors’ office and the nonprofit Opportunities, Alternatives & Resources (OAR), Taking Root focuses on people charged with a non-violent offense who are experiencing an “underlying issue,” such as poverty or drug addiction, that could be eased with treatment or social services.

Descano says his office doesn’t have “hard and fast” eligibility rules for determining who to recommend for the program, but most participants are on their first or second time in the court system, and their diversion plan must be approved by a judge.

So far, 100 people have been referred to Taking Root, and 20 of them have graduated — a milestone that the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, OAR and other supporters, including Sen. Tim Kaine, celebrated at Mackenzie’s (3950 University Drive, Suite 210) on Monday.

According to Descano, the idea for Pathfinder Kitchen was developed with Mackenzie’s owner Josh Alexander, who also chairs the Old Town Fairfax Business Association (OTFBA) board of directors.

“He was telling us about the need to get more people into the restaurant business, into the industry, and we just started to…have this dialogue and said, ‘Hey, we have a crop of people who [could help], if you’re willing to give people second chances’…and they were very receptive,” Descano recalled.

Also supported by the nonprofit Britepaths, which provides supportive services, the pilot program is funded by a Fairfax City grant, and graduates who get their ServSafe certification will be placed in jobs with participating restaurants, all of which are currently in the city.

Reflecting on Taking Root’s first full year of operations, OAR Diversion Program Manager Lula Kelly said the ability to work with each participant based on their specific needs is key to the program’s success. Read More


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