Alexandria, VA – It’s hard to get a word in edgewise when you interview Dana Lawhorne, especially in Del Ray. On a recent sunny afternoon at Stomping Ground on Mount Vernon Avenue, the 61-year-old Sheriff seamlessly shifted from cracking jokes and telling stories to saying hello to passersby, smiling and waving all knowingly and giving words of encouragement. It’s only natural though, since he’s been in law enforcement in Alexandria for 40 years.
“I grew up knowing what I didn’t want and not so much knowing what I wanted,” Lawhorne told The Zebra. “I have empathy for everything and everybody, and my sense of humor keeps me sane. I try to make people laugh, and sometimes self-deprecating humor will keep people laughing and grounded. But the most important thing, man, is to marry up.”
It’s really as if the stars on Lawhorne’s collar are there for decoration. If you don’t work with the man, it might be easy to forget the massive responsibility to the community on his shoulders, namely managing the Alexandria Detention Center and Sheriff’s Department. Lawhorne, a lifelong fan of Andy Griffith, was raised in a dysfunctional home by alcoholic parents. His entire life has been an exercise in finding order through chaos, and he was raised by members of the community and Alexandria Police officers he befriended as a teenager. As soon as he turned 21, Lawhorne became an Alexandria Police officer and served for 27 years before running for Sheriff. As a cop, though, Lawhorne spent the majority of his career as a detective in juvenile services, investigating crimes against children and helping families.
Now in his fourth term as Sheriff, Lawhorne has no plans to hang up his hat and retire. It’s an incredible story, and we hope you enjoy our interview.
Zebra: Forty years is a long time. How long do you want to do this work?
Lawhorne: I’ll keep going as long as I can [and] as long as the citizens of Alexandria support me and what I’m doing.
Zebra: Were you born in Alexandria?
Lawhorne: My brother likes to remind me that I wasn’t actually born in Alexandria. I was born in Fredericksburg, Va., but moved to Alexandria when I was two years old. So, I think having lived here for nearly 60 years qualifies me as being born and raised in Alexandria.
Zebra: Are you the first member of your family in law enforcement?
Lawhorne: Yes. From that, my nephew, my middle brother’s son, he got into the Secret Service, then my older brother, Ron, got into it. I’d already been a police officer about 10 years and then Ron joined the Alexandria Sheriff’s Department, and Ron’s two sons are firefighters in Prince George’s County. I take credit for starting the trend.
Zebra: How long was Ron with the department? Was it easy working with your brother?
Lawhorne: He was with us 25 years. He worked for me eventually. He joined the Sheriff’s office in 1989 and I became sheriff in 2006. I was his boss for about nine years, but he was still the boss. You ever try to tell your older brother what to do?
Zebra: It’s different when you’ve got the stars on your collar, isn’t it?
Lawhorne: No. No difference. He’s my older brother and he had a great influence on my life growing up, as did my other older brother, Bill, who stepped in and was the parent in my household. My parents were alcoholics, and it was a dysfunctional family. When it was good it was really good, but when it was bad, it was really bad. The police would come to my house and my younger sister wound up in foster care, I became sort of a ward of the family court, but by the grace of a lot of people and the help of a lot of adults and guidance from my brothers, they had a great influence in my life.
Zebra: When did you know you wanted to be a police officer?
Lawhorne: When I was 14 years old. I was in the eighth grade at Parker Grey Middle School in 1972, and of course back then nobody liked the police. The hippies called them pigs, and by that time I was a very lost kid. My brother Ron had gone into the Navy, and I had to do what I could to survive. I just didn’t really care. Things were very tumultuous then in terms of our nation, our city, my home and I was very disengaged. So, in eighth grade the then-police chief started to send officers to talk to kids in schools. I couldn’t have cared less, but my social studies teacher, Jack Esformes, made me write questions down on a piece of paper, and he asked the police officer my question, so I became interested. One day Mr. Esformes announced that the police chief was introducing a citizen ride-along program, and he said I needed to do that, and I said no way, because everybody thought that you were a narc if you weren’t smoking pot or selling it. He said I needed to do something and he showed me my grades, and told me to go write a paper about the ride-along. I needed to get my parents’ signature on the form, and my father signed it and I forged my mom’s signature. Don’t tell anybody.
I went. It was in March 1972. It was a Friday night and I showed up at the police station and went on a ride-along for eight hours. I remember as if it was yesterday, that I was treated with so much respect. Everyone was so courteous and welcoming, which was in total contrast to what I had been told or saw on the news. It totally turned me around. At the end of that night I said, “Wow, that’s me. I want to be a police officer. That’s something I can do. That’s a goal I can have in life,” and that’s what I was determined to do. It kept me on the straight and narrow path.
Zebra: Did you continue to have a relationship with the police up until your graduation from T.C. Williams High School?
Lawhorne: Yes. I got to know a couple officers really well. I was so fascinated by the job that I would just stand on the corner of where I lived on Commonwealth Ave. and Luray Ave., hoping that they would drive by, that they were working. Sometimes I’d stand out there for days. I’d have six inches of snow on top of my head just hoping to run into them, because I was very fascinated by the business. I became very good friends with several of them, and we got to know each other on a first name basis. One of them was Frank Goodwin, another was Bill Pickle. Frank and Bill were the beat cops and they eventually noticed me standing there. I had long hair, and they’d yell out, “Hey, you long-haired hippie! What are you doing out there?!” And we started talking and eventually they started stopping all the time and then they’d come back after running a call and invite me to sit in the car, let me listen to the radio and they eventually took me home to meet their wives, and hang out and have Sunday dinners.
Zebra: Did you become a law enforcement officer because your house was lawless? Also, you have the word “Law” in your name?
Lawhorne: People often ask me about the Lawhorne name and tell me how appropriate it is. I think you’re exactly right. I saw what chaos did to my family and to me. I was fascinated by police work in the sense that it brought order where there was chaos. Police officers are called on to do so many things, and they’d come to my house when I was a young kid, because we had no choice but to call the police to intervene when things were out of control. I remember the police officers who came to my house and tried to do something, and I remember the ones who didn’t, and I always thought that I would never be like the latter. So, the heroes to me, the mentors, were the police officers who tried to help, who talked to some long-haired 14-year-old boy standing on the corner. Every day you put on that uniform is another day and a chance to change somebody’s life, or at least give a positive impression of what we do. It’s a very noble profession that I believe in so much that I’ve given 40 years of my life to it. I wouldn’t change a thing. I believe in fate, that something told me to stand on that corner and hope something good would come by.
Zebra: Have you always believed in fate?
Lawhorne: Yes and no. I never believed that fate was taking me in a certain direction. I mean, think about it: I’m sitting in an eighth-grade classroom with my head on the desk and a teacher believes in me. He saw something in me. He made me go on that ride-along. I switched in eight hours, man, and all I knew to do was stand on the corner, and that’s how I met Frank and Bill. Frank’s wife, Janet, would fill a thermos full of hot chocolate for him and give him an extra cup for me, and one Christmas Eve he showed up at my house with a wrapped gift. And, you know what? To this day you’ll still occasionally see me standing at the corner of Commonwealth and Luray.
Zebra: How did you meet your wife, Linda?
Lawhorne: I knew you had to be 21 to be a cop, and I was 18 years old right out of high school, so I barely got out of high school, and I asked Frank if he knew anyone at the Hamlets – the Winkler property – and he said that he knew the security director. I told him I wanted to work there, and he set it up. So, I started working at the Hamlets. I love it. I had a uniform, a radio, a car.
Zebra: Did they give you a gun?
Lawhorne: No! I didn’t need one, but I loved it. I felt like the police, riding around and working at night, having the time of my life preparing to turn 21 to become a cop. And at the Hamlets I worked at the rental offices, and I’d been there about a year and one day I was relieving one of the security guards and he was standing there talking to this very cute young lady, and he said, “Oh, Dana, this is Linda – Flo Fink’s daughter.” The next day I couldn’t wait to get to Flo’s office to see if she had any reports. Flo said to me, “Well, I hear you met my daughter! She enjoyed meeting you.” Linda was working with the company and was living with her mother on the property. While I was on duty, I staked out the court that she lived on, waiting for her to come home from work, and she showed up and I said it was nice meeting her the other night and asked her out. Anyway, we’ve been married for 35 years, we have three daughters, two grandchildren. She’s the love of my life.
Zebra: And now you believe in fate.
Lawhorne: What else is there? I mean, come on, man. All those things fell in place for me. I’m just lucky and blessed, because I’ve been married to someone who I have the upmost respect and admiration for – the love of my life. She’s a wonderful mom and friend and partner in life with me. I married up. Despite all my Del Ray leanings I married a girl from the West End. What if I hadn’t met Frank standing on the doggone street corner? He knew the manager at The Hamlets, he got me the job, and I met Linda, and that’s been my life.
Zebra: Then you turned 21 and got hired by the police department.
Lawhorne: It was a great job. I was a uniformed patrol officer for seven years. I was living the dream. I’d graduated from the Criminal Justice Academy and was assigned Del Ray where I grew up. What an honor and a privilege it was to police this area. It was a much different city then. Del Ray was much different.
Zebra: Little bit sketchier?
Lawhorne: It was fun! Even then I was always involved in the honor guard, as a field training officer, on the hostage negotiations team. I taught classes, I did whatever it took to go above and beyond what was expected of me. In 1985 I got married and in 1986 I transferred to become a detective working in juvenile services, of all places, which was just lucky. I got the job and did that for 19 years – investigating crimes against children and assisting families.
Zebra: You got a chance to help people who were like you.
Lawhorne: That’s right. I was in those shoes and I felt that if there was some way or another that I could ease their pain somehow that I was going to do it. And I always have treated people with respect, but I have also held them accountable. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone I put away for a long time say that I was ever disrespectful of them.
Zebra: Your predecessor was Jim Dunning, who left office after his wife Nancy Dunning was murdered by Charles Severance. Why did you run for the position?
Lawhorne: I’d been with the department almost 27 years, through the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s, and crime was off the charts. I look back, and the Kevin Shiflett case, about the eight year old boy who was killed back in 2001. It was a senseless, unprovoked attack by a paranoid schizophrenic. The city was turned upside down, and I was convinced the perpetrator got into a cab and we didn’t go home until we found that cab, which took us about eight or nine days. I felt that whoever drove him away from the scene would be the key to solving that case. I was determined to do that and did and was successful, and that was what solved the case. I look at that, at the many kids who ran away from home, and I’d go find them and try to reunite the families.
I was team leader with the hostage negotiation team for 22 years, and after the death of officer Charlie Hill on Hopkins Court, I wrote the policy that the police department uses to this day. As a hostage negotiator, in 1998 the pawn shop at King and Beauregard, and he was trapped inside and held eight hostages. I was working that night. I talked to him for about three hours and he released the hostages and he took his own life. Those were hard times, and it had an effect on my family. I tried to do a good job of balancing it all.
Zebra: Is it hard not taking your work home with you?
Lawhorne: It was, and I give all the credit to Linda, who was much stronger than I was at times. She always seemed to know how to deal with me. She’s a very strong person and knows me better than anybody. She knew how to keep me grounded. Still does. It was a very rewarding career, but it had a cost to it. So, Jim Dunning was not running for reelection and members of the Democratic Party approached me about running.
Zebra: Were you active in politics?
Lawhorne: Not at all. I managed (former Vice Mayor) Bill Cleveland’s city council campaign in 1985, so everybody thought I was a Republican, but I was just a Bill Cleveland fan. I supported David Speck when he was a Republican and a Democrat. So, what’s that make me? I wasn’t a card-carrying anything. But I also saw it as an opportunity to take everything that I’d learned for 27 years working for a great agency. I felt like I had leadership skills and the ability to make things happen and change things. I was the one who’d go out in the middle of the night to talk to people from jumping off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, or hanging out on the eighth floor of a balcony to help people in crisis situations.
Zebra: Is it because you’d learned to talk to your parents in crisis at a young age?
Lawhorne: Yes. I was talking to a mother who was out of control and I grew up using words and not physicality. Growing up like that you learn to negotiate. Zebra: Have you had to get physical in the job? Lawhorne: Never. My parents were. It was flight. I’d run to the neighbor’s house until the cops showed up. It’s one of the reasons that as the sheriff, I so believe in education, because I blew my middle and high school years. All I ever wanted for my mom growing up was that she had help, and we tried but failed. As Sheriff what I’ve tried to do with my agency and staff is create a culture that will make a difference, trigger something positive. Sobriety, education, transition is our motto and that’s what I believe in. I always try to remind people who are incarcerated to think beyond themselves. They have to think about what they are doing to their families. I don’t know if my parents ever did that, if they ever thought about what their drinking did to their kids.
Zebra: Maybe the best thing they could have ever done is mistreat you so that you could help all these people in return.
Lawhorne: I don’t think it was intentional, but I am very aware that I would not have gotten to where I am now if it had not been without the love and care of others. That’s why I tell my deputies to be mentors, to make a difference in someone’s life. Look at what happened to me. You can’t do if by yourself.
Zebra: What is your distinguishing characteristic? What do you give off to people?
Lawhorne: I think it’s three things. I care about everything. My wife tells me that I care about things to the point where I dwell on them and feel guilty about them. If I can’t stop something or do something about it, I feel incredibly guilty. That’s why I’ve been here 40 years. I never go anywhere. I just feel like I’m not going to be there for somebody, and it’s stifling. I have empathy for everything and everybody, and my sense of humor keeps me sane.
Zebra: What’s capacity at the jail?
Lawhorne: It’s built for 338 and we run about 400. It’s rather typical that jails are double-bunking, so we double-bunk in general population. Our biggest challenge today is mental health issues, people who come to the facility from the street suffering from mental illness. It’s no secret that every day at the detention center that somebody is trying to harm themselves, so we have very strict protocols on how to handle them. People go on hydration and hunger strikes and we have a very strict protocols on that, handling the federal contract with the VIPs who come to us, like Zacarias Moussoui, Paul Manafort, the Russian spy Marina Butina and now Chelsea Manning.
Zebra: Do you talk to any of these folks?
Lawhorne: Sure, I see them every now and then. Manafort I’ve talked to, but they bring challenges with them and the whole world is watching and there are protests. Some protestors appeared outside the jail the other day because we’re holding Chelsea Manning, and I’m like, “Go protest at the courthouse! I didn’t put her in here!”
Zebra: How can you treat terrorists and murderers with respect? I would have a hard time being respectful to monsters.
Lawhorne: You have to. It’s the thing that people don’t understand about our business. We’re consistent in what we do, no matter who you are. I call it the “No Judge Zone.” There’s no judgment. This is what we preach to our staff. We can’t judge people. That’s not our job. I do my job and the courts do their job, and my staff get it – whether you’re a heroin addict or a terrorist. People are treated with dignity and respect and we’re consistent.
Zebra: With mental health, can your staff deliver medication to the inmates prescribed by the court? Are they just as screwed up in the head by the time they leave as when they arrived?
Lawhorne: We are very limited on what we can do in that regard. We have mental health therapists, a psychiatrist who can prescribe drugs, but they can’t be narcotics.
Zebra: Recently at a city council legislative meeting, a representative from Tenants and Workers United testified that you have entered into an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They say you hold undocumented immigrants for longer than their court-imposed sentences so that they can be picked up by ICE and deported.
Lawhorne: It’s not true, and they know it’s not true, but they keep saying it. We don’t have an agreement with ICE to hold anyone past their state release date, period. When you’re done with your state sentence, if ICE files a lawful request detainer that they have reason to believe that you are in the country illegally, they assume custody of you. That’s it. I met with Tenants and Workers United four times. I’ve told them time and again that we don’t hold anyone past their state release date. It doesn’t stop them.
Now, some have accused the Sheriff’s office of complying with an administrative warrant and enforcing an immigration law, but this just isn’t the case. ICE has the power and the authority to take someone into their custody, and they follow their protocols as directed by federal law. No law requires ICE to produce a criminal warrant during the removal process, and ICE has the authority to take someone into their custody without an administrative warrant. In all cases involving the Alexandria Detention Center, ICE will always produce the administrative warrant (I-200) prior to assuming custody. Per federal law, this is a civil process and not a criminal process.. No law requires ICE to produce a criminal warrant during the removal process.
Zebra: And they have to pick them up while they are in your custody?
Lawhorne: That is correct. ICE has the federal authority and the power to enforce immigration laws. The last time I checked the Alexandria Detention Center is in the Unites States of America, and if they want to enforce the immigration laws they do so. It’s not our job to enforce immigration law. They just assume custody of a person as soon as they are done with me. We have no contract with ICE. We have a contract with the U.S. Marshal Service for federal inmates, which nobody seems to have a problem with, because the feds need and have no space.
Zebra: Nearly two years ago, there was a marked difference in your appearance. You lost weight and got very tan. This was, of course, in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Simpson Baseball Field on June 14, 2017. The Sheriff’s Department had no real role, but you were there anyway.
Lawhorne: I sweated off 15 pounds. It goes back to always feeling like I’m supposed to be here to always stand watch. I think about that day and I was about eight minutes, eight blocks away from missing that whole thing. I got up earlier than usual that morning and I was in the shower earlier and I could hear all the sirens and it just sounded like too many, and then the house phone rang. Our oldest daughter was leaving and got to Mount Vernon and Monroe and Linda’s calling up the stairs, “Something’s going on!” I get my uniform on and jump in the car and I get to the scene in about 30 seconds.
Anyhow I get there and the Police Chief Mike Brown sees me and we were glued at the hip with the Fire Chief until 9 p.m. that night. I had a tremendous sense of sadness that this happened on a field that I played on as a kid, at a place where I often go to reflect about childhood. And then evil showed up, but something kicked in, because evil showed up with Nancy Dunning in 2000, evil showed up in 2015 when Charles Severance also killed a friend of mine, Ruth Ann Lodato. I was there 10 minutes later and sat in the ambulance and talked with Ruth Ann.
With the leadership of Mike Brown, we did the best we could to help this community stay together. So, it’s a day I will never forget. Mike Brown, I can never say it enough that around an hour-and-a-half into the situation and he said, “Well, guess I have to go make my first press briefing,” and I told him that there must be more people down there than I’ve seen at a baseball game.
You knew right away that it was an international story. He said, “Yep, I’m going to make my first briefing and you’re going with me with the Fire Chief and I don’t want to hear any more about it.” And that’s what you saw, because he brought strength with him, and this is my back yard and it was a tough day, but his leadership won the day. Our deputies were there getting people out of the YMCA and we were ready, because I always tell them to be a ready and that you never know when evil is going to show up. You have to be ready to help. We had 22 uniformed deputies on the scene within 20 minutes of the incident.
Zebra: What is it like being the sheriff? There’s a persona that goes with the job, right?
Lawhorne: I make no secret about it. I’m a big fan of Andy Griffith. I remember watching those shows at a very young age, and with disorder in my house, I would look at that show and not really realize that it was televisions, that it wasn’t real. I grew up knowing that’s what I wanted, and what I always strived for. It’s interesting – Andy saw things that he was going to uphold the law, but he always looked beyond at the effect that this was going to have on their families. He held people accountable, and the thing that he was always trying to teach Barney was that you can get there, but you don’t always have to give them a citation. You don’t have to treat people like they’re crooks. It’s not our job, but when I was a cop, I had to hold people accountable, because what they did was a crime needing punishment. I see that my role is to help people. I love the fact that as the sheriff that people can rely and call on me, and If I can’t help them then I will lead them in the right direction. My kids get asked all the time from their friends what it’s like having their father as the sheriff, like the character you see in the movies. You know, a horse, lots of keys, all that sort of stuff.
Zebra: Where is the joy for you in this job?
Lawhorne: The joy is when you go to a GED graduation in the jail, when I see somebody in front of their parents or their loved one and we see their GED diploma, when I see my staff go out and get gifts for the kids of those incarcerated with their own money, I know that I have people working with me who have big hearts. That’s joy. When I see my staff succeed, achieve a promotion, I’m very proud of the diversity of my senior staff.
Zebra: You see this as a reflection of your leadership and influence. Is it like you’re doing it yourself?
Lawhorne: I take great pleasure and pride in knowing that maybe I played a part in their success.
Zebra: At the end of the day, you’ve saved lives, you’ve helped countless people that most of us don’t even know about. Has the blueprint of your life been accomplished?
Lawhorne: I grew up knowing what I didn’t want and not so much knowing what I wanted. Linda grew up the same way. She was raised by a single mom. I knew that I didn’t want what I had, but maybe I wasn’t so sure about what I wanted, and I wanted peace and harmony, but even in any marriage you have to work at it. I want that for everybody, and if I can do something about it I will. Look, the city has been good to me, people have been good to me for the most part and I’ve been lucky, and there have been a lot of great success stories. I love working with the people of Alexandria and watching it transform and change. There are a lot of great leaders in this community to make it what it is and I’m just proud to be a part of it.