eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

2018 Northern Virginian of the Year: Michael Rossiter

When Michael Rossiter was about 6 or 7, a police officer showcased the skills of K-9 dogs at a father-son night at church. By the time he’d returned to his Pennsylvania home, he had settled on his future career.

The Alexandria Police Department sergeant, now in his 12th year with the APD, recently won the 2017-18 SHIELD (Service, Honor, Integrity, Excellence, Leadership and Dedication) Award from the Anti-Defamation League, recognizing his leadership of the Alexandria Youth Police Academy. Rossiter created the program in 2015, modeled loosely after one he attended at age 16. For about three months, city teens gather each week for free sessions on several facets of police work.

“It kind of started out where I thought I’d be getting kids that want to do this job,” Rossiter says. “And then Ferguson happened.”

The 2014 fatal shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—among the controversial shootings fueling the Black Lives Matter movement and increased public scrutiny of the relationship between police officers and the communities they serve—added an additional goal as the program developed: to improve Alexandrians’ perception of their own police force.

“If you don’t have any real interaction with a police officer, then what you hear from other people or what you see in the news—that’s what you’re going to base your decision on,” Rossiter says.

Rossiter’s mentorship at times extends beyond the boundaries of the academy, as he attends the high school graduation of one attendee or serves as a college reference for another. Yet Rossiter hesitates to be the face of the program, striving to involve as many officers as he can.

“It’s not just one or two officers that are nice,” he wants his students to learn. “There’s a lot of officers that are approachable, good-natured, can laugh at jokes and want to be there.”

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