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Editorial: Playing politics with law enforcement is wrong

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It should go without saying that every elected official – as well as any average-Joe resident –should feel free to call the police if they feel threatened by a message delivered either in person or online.

Unfortunately, however, that obvious truth was made murky this past week due to accusations lobbed at Prince William County Supervisor Andrea Bailey in response to her husband’s decision to report an angry email from a Dumfries resident with the subject line: “Government Target.”

The Baileys, it must be said, are likely pretty adept at recognizing a threat when they see one. Cozy Bailey, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served when Black officers were by far the exception, is now president of the Prince William NAACP.  In that capacity, he also serves on the Prince William County Police Department’s Citizen Advisory Board. In other words, Cozy Bailey has likely experienced enough threatening overtures to spot one from a mile away.

So, the fact that Cozy Bailey forwarded an angry email with the subject line “government target” to Police Chief Peter Newsham was not inappropriate. Again: Any elected official or average-Joe citizen has every right to call the police to report a perceived threat.

It’s the police department’s job to evaluate those reports and decide what to do next. As Chief Newsham told County Executive Chris Martino, the email in question was “difficult to discern.”

“As is common in such situations, the email was sent to the criminal investigations division for follow up,” Newsham wrote.

The detective assigned the case visited the email’s author, Dumfries resident Robert Hand, at his home to explain that the email was considered troubling by some supervisors and to tell Hand what Virginia law says about communications that “cross the line” into threatening and illegal territory. The detective also assured Hand he had not broken the law and should feel comfortable expressing his First Amendment rights. Hand was charged with no crime, as his intentions were determined not to have been threatening. 

Hand told the police officer that the “government target” to which he was referring, was not the supervisors themselves but rather another local resident and frequent board critic, Alan Gloss. Gloss unsuccessfully sued the board last year, alleging its five Democrats violated the state’s FOIA law by attending a police community meeting held after a May 2020 protest against police brutality that devolved into violence. A judge ultimately dismissed Gloss’s lawsuit last fall.

During a recent board meeting, Supervisor Andrea Bailey could be heard on the microphone asking Board Chairman Ann Wheeler: “What are you going to do about Alan Gloss?”

Neither Wheeler nor Bailey has explained what that comment was about, but some, including Hand, took it to be a slight against Gloss. 

Some who are angry with the current board over recent land-use decisions have seemingly used Newsham’s decision to investigate Hand’s email to accuse Democrats on the board, who hold the majority, of using the police to pressure their critics.

But if that were the case, wouldn’t the police department spend a lot more time investigating those critics? Those complaining the loudest about the investigation should ask themselves if they’ve ever received a visit from police for something they’ve said during citizens’ comment time or for a critical email they’ve fired off to the board. Likely, the answer is no.

There’s no evidence that supervisors of either party have used their clout to “pressure” the police to investigate their critics. To suggest otherwise is wrong.

Newsham himself couldn’t have been more clear about the situation last Tuesday, Sept. 7, when Republican supervisors grilled him about whether the investigation was motivated by politics.

“There’s been allegations that this investigation was done for a political purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Newsham said.

At another point in the meeting, Newsham further explained: “I felt it was the right thing to do. I felt it was in the best interest of public safety. If we hadn't of done some kind of a review of that communication, and something terrible happened here at the McCoart building, I think I would be answering different questions than these.” 

Before he was hired by Prince William County in November 2020, Newsham was chief of police for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, where he worked for 30 years. Newsham also has a law degree. With that background, Newsham has enough experience and legal knowledge to decide when an angry email deserves a second look. 

Once upon a time, Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, and Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, praised Newsham for exactly that – his experience.

“I think he brings a tremendous amount of experience to Prince William County, and I think he’ll be a benefit as we continue to improve our police department,” Candland said shortly after Newsham was hired in November 2020.

At the time, Lawson said this of Newsham: “He obviously comes with a depth of experience and knowledge that I think Prince William County can really gain from.”

So why are Lawson, Candland and Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, now questioning Newsham’s decision to investigate the email?  

Perhaps it is because they – not Newsham – are letting politics get in the way of their better judgment.

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(1) comment

Sharonharvey

Where are you getting your information?? In the EARLY 60’s in California, my father served under two black O-6’s (bird colonels outranking LtCol or LTCs). The head of the dental clinic was a black O-6 named Hunter. His best friend was another O-6 named Sherman Smith. These two black officers bought and sold houses and land around Fort Ord and Seaside. When I went back in December 68 until March 71, these guys were millionaires. I knew their kids and I can tell you they were not in the least disenfranchised or racially abused. They were athletes and very popular. So don’t play that BS about military hardship from being black.

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