When the Alexandria prosecutor's office opened a satellite division in Arlandria in 2001, officials and residents hailed it as an innovative example of community prosecution -- working with residents to prevent crime rather than just bringing cases to court.
By all accounts the experiment, a first in Virginia, was successful. Prosecutor Thomas K. Cullen became a fixture among the large proportion of Latino immigrants in the community, and they began to lose their fear of the criminal justice system. Residents and prosecutors say crime has diminished.
Then the program's funding -- two U.S. Department of Justice grants -- ran out. So on July 1, Cullen closed the suite at 3805 Mount Vernon Ave. and moved back to the Alexandria commonwealth attorney's office in Old Town.
Residents say they are distressed at the loss.
"We're disappointed. Tom really knew what was going on in the neighborhood," said Kevin Beekman, a board member of the Lenox Place at Sunnyside homeowners association, which covers part of the neighborhood.
"The thing that's troublesome is that a lot of people in the neighborhood won't really have the opportunity to meet with him anymore," Beekman said. "A lot of Latino immigrants find approaching the government a hard thing to do, and Tom's office was a place that was known in the neighborhood where they could find a face they recognized and trusted."
Paula Coleto said crime was high when she opened Huascaran, a Peruvian restaurant, on Mount Vernon Avenue in 1996. The increased presence of Cullen and other city agencies has helped make the area safer in recent years, she said.
"When we had Tom, the street was nice and clean," said Coleto, who was surprised to learn last week that the office had closed. "He provided security for us. He used to just come here and make sure everything was okay."
Cullen, an assistant commonwealth's attorney who is fluent in Spanish, said he agrees that "there is somewhat of a loss. . . . The best way to combat crime is to prevent it and have a relationship with the people who suffer from it. Personally, I don't think you can do that by being mostly available only at the courthouse and only in the courtroom."
But Cullen called his three-year tenure "a great experiment" that the prosecutor's office hopes to replicate in other neighborhoods in the city.
Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said that Cullen will still make frequent trips to Arlandria and that the office has arranged to have a victim-witness specialist work in the community rent-free at a health center. But it likely will be for only a few hours, several days a week. Cullen's office had been open full time, with late-evening hours.
"I'm optimistic that we can continue to do what we've been doing down there and make some additional progress," Sengel said. "We think this was a success."
The satellite office, which cost about $165,000 a year to operate, had been funded by back-to-back Justice Department grants of 18 months each. President Bill Clinton's administration supplied such grants for prosecutor's offices across the country on the theory that getting prosecutors out in the community would help prevent crime.
Nearly 70 percent of prosecutor's offices nationwide are now doing some form of community outreach or community-based prosecution, said Mike Kuykendall, director of the National Center for Community Prosecution in Alexandria. But Cullen's office was the first prosecutor's office in Virginia to physically relocate within a community.
"What was interesting about Alexandria was that it was one of the more progressive offices because when you're able to have a lawyer actually out in the community, there's no better way to connect with a community than that," Kuykendall said.
The national movement for community prosecution began in Portland, Ore., in 1990, and by the final year of the Clinton administration the Justice Department was spending $25 million in grants to such offices across the country, Kuykendall said.
Although President Bush's first budget contained no money for community prosecution, his administration spread out the $25 million from Clinton's final budget over three years until the funding ran out this year. Kuykendall said it is not yet clear how the cuts will affect other communities, some of which may replace the federal grant with local money.
Officials at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Justice Department unit that administered the grants, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. But Cullen said some of the federal money was reallocated into gun programs, and Sengel said he was told that the Justice Department "was making some funding adjustments post-September 11 and reallocating money to other areas."
In Alexandria, Sengel said he considered asking the city to pick up the funding for the program but decided he couldn't justify the request. "At the end of the day, we have to balance our resources and the ability to respond not only to respond to Arlandria but to the whole city," he said.
Beekman said his homeowners association was surprised by the closure, because the group knew the federal grant was ending and had asked that the city pick up the funding.
During his three years in Arlandria, residents say, Cullen assisted residents with everything from zoning problems to landlord-tenant disputes and helped them confront their fear of dealing with the English-speaking court system. He also took on his more traditional prosecutorial role, bringing cases from the neighborhood to court that ranged from robberies and assaults to narcotics violations.
At a time when increasing attention is being paid to Northern Virginia's growing gang problem, especially the Hispanic gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, Cullen spent time speaking to school and parent groups in Arlandria about the dangers of gangs.
"I would work with anyone who would talk to me," he said. "We would work closely with the police to get information so we were ahead of the problem, identifying people who might fall into a gang situation and try to help their family."
Cullen emphasized that that effort will continue, along with much of his other work in the neighborhood.
Residents remain skeptical but said they are trying to be optimistic. "I hope it will be the same," Beekman said, "but there's a lot of uncertainty."