When Fairfax County Police Chief Dave Rohrer, 56, joined the department in 1980, there was no cyber crime, there was only one police helicopter, and the Northern Virginia 911 system had not yet been implemented.
“We communicated with four-channel radios,” Rohrer recalls. “There was no such thing yet as computers in squad cars.”
When Rohrer — who has been chief of police for eight years — steps down on Oct. 20, he will leave a much different department, one whose communications and technology systems are the envy of many police departments across the country.
Rohrer was recently appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to become the deputy county executive for public safety. In his new position, he will shed his uniform and his 32-year designation as a law enforcement officer, to don a coat and tie and oversee the county’s police department, fire and rescue department, office of emergency management and department of public safety communications from the Fairfax County Government Center.
“After I accepted, I went home and said to myself ‘What have I done,’” he said. “Stepping out of law enforcement is bittersweet. I have worn a uniform my entire career. Thirty-two years is a long time, and I love this department, but at the same time, I like to grow and face new challenges.”
Rohrer, who joined the department at age 24, did not come from a law enforcement background and had no family members in that line of work. He said he had previously only worked in construction before deciding to become a policeman.
“I liked the idea of being my own boss and making a difference in people’s lives,” he said.
Rohrer began his career at the McLean district station, directing traffic, eventually joining the department’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which he was a member of for seven years.
“That period of my career taught me confidence and how to lead a team,” he said.
Rohrer moved up the ranks to sergeant, then major, taking on the department’s top position in 2004.
“The chief’s spot took some getting used to,” he said.”The chief is the point person for everything. All eyes go to you.”
Many credit Rohrer with modernizing the department, especially in terms of communications.
“Chief Rohrer has been very supportive of social media and other communication technologies that have greatly benefitted the department,” said MaryAnn Jennings, director of the Fairfax County Police Public Information Office. “He has greatly helped improve communications between our district stations and the administration by being open to new ideas and new technologies.”
Jennings said that in addition to communications, Rohrer also set the tone for the department in both intelligence-based and community-based policing.
“He helped the department to establish a very strong relationship with the U.S. Attorney’s office to get maximum penalties in many cases,” she said. “But probably his greatest legacy is that he has been out in the community constantly and helped establish a good sense of partnership with the community.”
Rohrer agrees that police need a strong tie with their communities.
“Ensuring access to witnesses is a key part of police work,” he said. “Immigration issues are always a big deal here because of our diverse community, and in the end it is always a tip from an individual that helps officers to solve a case. All law enforcement needs to be able to have the trust of their communities to effectively do their job.”
Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard, who served under Rohrer before taking the top spot in Herndon, agrees that his greatest legacy is his community outreach.
“I believe Dave's strongest asset is his commitment to the community he serves,” she said. “He cares deeply about the citizens he serves and has always gone to great efforts to keep them informed of relevant issues and involve them in the police department through various programs and committees he created. It was obvious that Dave enjoyed his position as chief, and felt proud to represent the citizens of Fairfax County. I think that was apparent to all that knew him.”
Rohrer said there will be a national search for his replacement as chief, but that he has encouraged his three deputy chiefs to apply.
Leaving food for thought for his successor, Rohrer believes the department needs to diversify in terms of its ethnic representation, and that something needs to be done about department resources being increasingly utilized on a high number of mental health calls being responded to by officers.
“Many mental health service budgets are being stretched because of cuts,” he said. “This has led to increased calls for officers to be called out due to individuals not receiving the proper mental health care they need.”
For many who know and worked with Rohrer, the general perception seems to be that Rohrer did the best he could with a department that faced fiscal issues for the majority of his tenure as chief.
“Running a large department is never an easy task, and the economic downfall the past five years have only compounded the difficulties associated with maintaining a high level of service to the public,” DeBoard said. “Dave's commitment to serve as Chief for such a long period and through such difficult times speaks volumes of his dedication to his community.”