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An Update on Northern Virginia Police Secrecy

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Over the last six months, I’ve written several articles about the extraordinary secrecy of Northern Virginia’s police agencies (see herehere, and here). A few updates on the story:

First, Michael Lee Pope, the reporter for the Connection Newspaper chain and the NPR affiliate WAMU who deserves all the credit for breaking and pushing this story, reports on yet another case in which police agencies aren’t cooperating with a citizen’s attempt at getting information. In this instance, it’s the family of a teenager murdered at an Alexandria bakery. Previously, Pope had reported on how police officials in Fairfax County were stonewalling the family of an unarmed man shot and killed by police during a traffic stop.

Pope’s most recent report then triggered another bizarre reaction from Scott McCaffrey, editor of theSun Gazette newspaper, a Connections competitor that also serves several communities in the Northern Virginia area. You may remember that back in September, McCaffrey inexplicably dismissed Pope’s reporting on all of this police secrecy as “tilting at windmills.” This time, he’s even more critical. In a blog post titled “Where are the editors?”, McCaffrey scolds:

One would think there are more important campaign issues for the Arlington Connection to be reporting on than how candidates for County Board stand on providing more access to police records.
Yet reporter Michael Lee Pope is on a mission, and he apparently is unrestrained by editors either at the paper or on WAMU-FM, where some of his material is picked up.
Connectionerinos, how about some coverage of serious issues affecting the community? We know reporters are underpaid, overworked and underloved, but by golly, they shouldn’t get to go out on strange tangents like open-records laws while leaving major stories uncovered.

The region has the most secretive police agencies in the country, unwilling to release even the merename of a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man, or to give a murder victim’s family information about the investigation of their son’s killer, and a local newspaper editor thinks covering all of this is a “strange tangent”? Who taught Scott McCaffrey journalism?

Finally, I’ve spent the last few months trying to get information on a somewhat disturbing personal twist to all of this. I lived in Alexandria for about seven years, until May, when I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. In September, I received an email from one of my former neighbors. It seems that in late September the new tenant in my old house got a visit from an Alexandria Sheriff’s Department deputy. Apparently, the deputy stopped by my old home and inquired whether anyone from “the Reason Institute [sic]” lived at the residence.

I’ve since spoken with one of the new tenants about this (though she gave me permission to look into and write about this, I’m not going to publish her name, for obvious reasons). She confirmed to me that all of this happened. She also said the deputy was holding some papers that looked to have articles printed on them, but he shielded them in a way that prevented her from reading them. She said the officer didn’t mention me by name, only the name of my employer.

Now there are lots of reasons why an Alexandria deputy might have cause visit my home. Perhaps an unpaid parking or speeding ticket. Maybe there was a break-in in the area. Several months before I moved out, my roommate called the police after being assaulted by a neighbor, and I was one of the witnesses. I can also see someone from the department possibly disagreeing with an article I’d written about the area’s police agencies, in which case they could have called or e-mailed Reason, or written a letter to the editor.

But it’s hard to come up with any justification as to why a uniformed deputy would visit a private residence asking whether anyone from Reason worked there, just after we’d published a series of articles critical of local police departments, other than a misguided attempt at intimidation. Maybethere is an innocuous explanation. But I haven’t been able to find one.

I spoke with the Alexandria Sheriff’s Department about this. The officer who patrols the area where I lived says it wasn’t him, and that he was unaware of anything I’d written. His supervisor said she’s never heard of me or of Reason, and has no knowledge of any officer visiting my former residence.

I should add here that I have never met the new tenants of my old home in person. They moved in well after I left, and before all of this had no idea who I am. The woman told me she was sufficiently rattled by her encounter with the deputy that she went inside immediately to look up Reason, at which point she eventually found my name and recognized it from some junk mail that had come to the house. That’s when she mentioned the incident to my former neighbors, who then contacted me. My point here is that it seems rather improbable that she would have made the story up.

In October I called the tenant back, asked her for a general physical description of the officer. I have since tried to call the department back to give them that description, but they haven’t returned my calls.

Radley Balko is senior editor and Reason magazine and, where this column first appeared.

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