The past year has been a grueling one for Alexandria's police -- not only on the streets, but also inside the station house.
City officials agree that morale is bad and that turnover has become a problem. Mayor-elect Jim Moran made police headquarters his first stop after his recent election, vowing that "the bickering must stop."
"It's the worst I've seen in 25 years here," said Homicide Chief of Detectives Andre Salvas. "Many people are depressed and spending their time looking for other jobs."
The troubles partly revolve around economic issues, according to interviews with numerous police officers and city officials. But it's the management style of Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel -- and Strobel's strained relations with City Hall -- that have become the focus of the turmoil.
Earlier this year, Strobel endured a special grand jury inquiry into whether he had cut short a 1984 police drug investigation. He was cleared, but the highly public examination left many police officers -- and Strobel -- bitter. In the aftermath, Strobel sued the city; and other officers, charging favoritism, have sued Strobel, keeping the controversy alive.
In addition, several police officers have been called to testify before a federal grand jury in Alexandria that is investigating allegations of misconduct in the police department.
Ever since Douglas Harman, the former city manager who appointed Strobel to his $70,000-a-year job, left Alexandria, questions have persisted about how long Strobel can remain as chief, particularly if Vola Lawson, the acting city manager, stays on.
Council members say one of the first and most important issues they must resolve is ensuring that the city manager and the public safety director can work together.
"This is something that definitely has to change," said Democratic council member Patricia S. Ticer. "There is still a separation there. Public safety is the uppermost issue on everyone's mind."
While Moran's mayoral victory last month was perceived as a boost for Strobel -- Charles E. Beatley, the departing mayor, was among his most vocal critics -- it is not yet clear whether there is room for both Strobel and Lawson at the top of Alexandria's administrative power structure.
"Let's face it," said a city employe who knows them both and who asked not to be identified. "Charlie Strobel and Vola Lawson have nothing in common. They don't talk and they don't see eye to eye on anything. It's a clash of styles. He is so rigid and uptight and she prefers informality."
While both Lawson and Strobel deny that there is tension between them, they agree that their personalities are not alike. Strobel said he would "like to have more contact with" Lawson, who is his boss.
"Charlie Strobel and I go back for more than 15 years in this city," said Lawson. "We can work together."
The grand jury investigation has shaken the pride of a department that has reduced crime in one of the Washington area's most demographically diverse cities. But other developments have hurt the department at least as much:
The City Council, seeking to contain a growing budget, withdrew key educational incentives that many officers say brought them to Alexandria.
The merging of the police, fire and code enforcement departments into one public safety department has saved the city more than $1 million this year but will eliminate 25 positions and curtail opportunities for promotion.
Communications problems that at least twice this year have prevented police officers from making timely responses to emergency calls caused hurt and embarrassment and forced the acting city manager to order major changes in the department.
"I feel very strongly about the men and women of this department," said Strobel, who acknowledged his anger and regret over the recent grand jury probe. "They don't deserve what they have been through . . . . I have committed my life to this city and I have been hurt, too."
Strobel said his father almost stopped speaking to him 28 years ago when he joined the police department. "He was a fireman and he thought what I did was a sin," he said. Most of Strobel's officers are loyal and few say they doubted that he would be cleared of the charges against him earlier this year.
But many members of the force question Strobel's leadership, if not his integrity. "I don't think he can help us anymore," said one patrol officer who asked not to be named. "He is arbitrary and autocratic. His favorites get promoted and the rest should not bother to apply."
Michele Evans, the assistant city manager who is the daily liaison between the city manager's office and the public safety department, acknowledges there has been unrest. But she lays most of the blame to economics.
"Consolidation has reduced the level of the command staff," she said. "Whenever you do that you cut the ability to promote and that's going to hurt. We have to find new ways to recognize the talent we have."
Line officers are particularly upset about the removal of educational incentives that could add as much as $1,000 to their annual salary. The incentives have been used specifically to attract police officers to Alexandria.
"The city has been unfair to us. It's a broken contract," said officer Tony Harper, who has been with the police department 14 years and brought a grievance last year over loss of his educational benefits. "They brought me in here saying that I would be worth more with a degree, and that they would reward my education. Now, they say, 'Leave if you don't like it.' "
Strobel said he backs the incentive pay, but that as one who believes in the chain of command he has not been vocal in disagreeing with the City Council. "The city has taken a beating in the last year," he said. "It's been long and hard and I don't think anyone wants another fight now."