"That's not a police station--that's a big closet," she thought at the time. "It was humiliating."
Five years, two locations and 24 floor plans later, the personable chief is finally proud to show off her station, a shiny new 1,600-square-foot building with an office door that closes, a two-way mirror, kitchenette and conference table.
"If you had ever told me this is where I would end up, I never would have believed you," said Harman soon after the station opened last month. "This is surreal. I'm never leaving."
Aquia Harbour, a gated community in the northeastern part of Stafford County, straddles historic Aquia Creek. Officers in the subdivision's police department do more than watch for speeders and vandalism--they mediate domestic disputes, care for families of deployed military members or even check if sprinklers are on at homes of those who are vacationing.
An open house at the new police facility drew hundreds of people--many with full plates of food--on a Saturday this fall, the day after a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new station. It's dedicated to Bill Carpenter, one of the first residents of the development. Carpenter initiated the change from security to sworn officers and served as the first police commissioner.
"There's room to work now," said Tina Talley, director of the property owners association. "It's not filthy, moldy, full of termites--it was abominable."
NEW DIGS LONG OVERDUE
General Manager Kenneth Laenger said the rebuild was long overdue.
The building cost around $300,000, and the station's annual operating budget of $500,000 comes from residents' dues.
A small foyer at the entrance requires visitors to buzz in, instead of walking right into the workspace. Now, Harman and her lieutenant share one office--with a glass door that closes for private conversations. Additional workspaces are set up on the other side of the building. A central conference table serves as a training area, a new feature made even better with a new TV mounted on the wall.
A small interview room has a two-way mirror in case it's ever needed, and also serves as a bunk room for emergency situations.
A kitchenette offers a space to hang out, with a refrigerator, sink, microwave and Keurig coffee maker. A locker room features golf lockers that work just as well as police lockers at a much lower price. A lock on the door is one of Harman's favorite features.
"They have enough room--nothing was wasted," said Laenger. "We are very pleased."
'BUILDING A COMMUNITY'
Harman, who prefers to be called Trish, was born at Marine Corps Base Quantico and started working for the Prince William County police at the age of 15. She retired after 30 years, and was a detective for much of that time.
Soon after, she learned about the Aquia chief opening, where she has since focused on community policing.
"Police work is OK. I like locking up bad guys well enough, but what I really like is building a community around a police department and working together on everything," Harman said.
But the community had some growing pains as the department changed focus.
"We were trying to build a professional, honorable police department, but it's hard to do with a shack," Harman said, adding that she didn't even want friends to stop by her new workplace.
Aquia Harbour is still part of Stafford County, so Sheriff Charles Jett has ultimate jurisdiction over the gated community and will step in if anything big happens.
Harman, her six full-time officers and one part-timer take about 250 calls per month, most of which are low-priority situations, like speeders or barking dogs.
Most domestic calls can be resolved with mediation, the force's first line of discipline.
The Mayberry-world of 9,000 people has embraced community policing, Harman said, as officers try to solve problems rather than write tickets.
About 40 residents also are trained to be on CERT, the community emergency response team.
The group had just finished the lessons on the evening of June 29, 2012, when the fast-moving derecho swept through the region, bringing down trees and power lines.
Talley was part of the founding group, which she says has "created a good surge of capability." That first summer weekend, volunteers cleaned up trees and directed traffic, a key responsibility at this year's daylong Fourth of July extravaganza.
Also part of the department are the guards who man the only security gate, waving through 13,000 cars each day at the intersection of U.S. 1 and State Route 610.
Residents clearly favor Harman's policing style. Last week, they nominated her for daytime television host Steve Harvey's Neighborhood Awards, which honor people who positively impact their communities. She was named a finalist and is flying to Chicago today for the show's taping. There is no air date yet for the show.
"These people are just so unbelievably supportive it's crazy," Harman said about the community.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975