Leesburg chief defends police role in Target shoplifting case involving Fairfax deputy


Dallas Northington, 29, was a security officer at a Target store in Leesburg, Va., when he reported a shoplifter. He was fired days later. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Leesburg police are conducting an internal inquiry to determine why a shoplifting investigation involving a Fairfax County sheriff’s deputy took six weeks, but Chief Joseph Price said Friday there was no preliminary indication that his investigator was trying to protect the deputy.

Price provided a detailed timeline of his department’s involvement in the shoplifting case that may shed further light on why Target fired its own security officer, Dallas Northington, a week after he reported two apparent thefts to Leesburg police.

Price said Northington turned over a “bootleg video” of the shoplifting rather than a complete, multi-camera version, did not provide a written report and requested anonymity when contacting police, which meant he could not be the complaining witness for Target as he had been in numerous other cases.

Northington said Saturday the video was in the same form that he had provided to Leesburg police in many other cases and that he had never previously been asked by police to provide a written report. He said he did not seek anonymity and repeatedly reached out to his Target supervisor after contacting police to inform him of his actions after the supervisor had left for the day.

Price and Northington agreed that Target’s lack of cooperation with the investigation impeded the police in resolving the criminal case. Target declined to comment Friday.

Northington vigorously praised Leesburg police, calling them “a very good agency with very good officers. The Leesburg police didn’t fire me. It was Target; it had nothing to do with Leesburg.” Northington also defended the sergeant who investigated the case, saying he “put his best foot forward to really get this resolved. But for some reason Target wouldn’t get in touch with the officer.”

Target did not initially assist the investigation, Price said. Its security supervisor reportedly declined to return the police investigator’s calls and did not volunteer its full video or loss report, although Price said both were compiled soon after Northington made his report May 27. Price said Target estimated that $94 in merchandise was taken in an incident that day and that a $6 tube of toothpaste was taken in an incident May 16 that was not initially reported to police.

Robert Palmer, 50, a 20-year veteran of the Fairfax sheriff’s office, was confronted about the case by his internal affairs unit June 3 and immediately retired. That same day, Target fired Northington, 29, who had worked for the company for nearly eight years, most recently as an assets protection specialist at the store on Edwards Ferry Road.

After an article about the case appeared July 13 in The Washington Post, Price said he called Target the next day and demanded to know if they would cooperate in prosecuting the case. Target responded that they would, and Palmer was charged with two counts of petty larceny.

Northington’s version of events was largely corroborated by Price, but with important clarifying details. Northington said he did not witness either the alleged toothpaste theft or the alleged swiping of $94 worth of items by a man who paid for some items at a pharmacy counter, then added unpaid items to the bags.

Each time, Northington said, his supervisor informed him of the incidents and showed him video of the same suspect. Northington said his supervisor told him he believed the suspect was in law enforcement, possibly in Fairfax County, and his name might be “Bob.”

The supervisor did not confront the suspect during either incident, which Leesburg Lt. Carl Maupin said was often crucial to make a shoplifting case, both for viewing the stolen merchandise and confirming that the person seen from the security booth is the suspect. Maupin said the supervisor might have been hesitant to confront a police officer who could be armed.

Price said Northington then sent text messages to two Leesburg officers saying, “I think there’s a guy from Fairfax law enforcement who’s ripping us off and I need to know what to do.” Price said Northington added, “And don’t tell my supervisor.”

Northington said he also reached out to a Fairfax police officer for private guidance because he was concerned about the safety aspect of confronting an officer. He said the officer told him to report the case immediately, so he did. Northington said he was not trying to avoid Target’s chain of command, but was merely consulting friends in law enforcement for advice before taking any action.

On May 27, Northington called Leesburg police, then went to the Leesburg police station at 11 p.m. to make a report. (He previously told The Post that the supervisor had called the police.) He said a sergeant then accompanied him back to Target, watched the video and was given a copy.

Price said the sergeant did not normally handle shoplifting cases, but took this one because it may have involved a law enforcement officer. He also said the sergeant may not have realized he was given an incomplete video. The sergeant was aware, Price said, that Northington did not want his supervisors to know about his report, so he felt that Northington was not authorizing a formal complaint from Target, as he had done in the past.

Northington said he didn’t make a complete video because it was 1 a.m. and Target frowned on overtime work. He said he would have made a full video when he returned to work, but instead Target suspended him, then fired him. Northington said he regularly provided partial videos to police, with eyewitness testimony from supervisors filling in any gaps, and that he intended to be the complaining witness, as he had been in the past.

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said Friday she could not comment on the chain’s role in the investigation. She said earlier that Northington’s claims of being fired unfairly were “without merit.”

After Northington was fired, the police needed to know if Target would still pursue the case. “My guy slips here,” Price said of his investigator’s actions in early June. “He tells me he’s contacted Target to see if they will press charges.” Northington didn’t know the monetary value of what was stolen, and retailers, including Target, often aren’t interested in pursuing small cases. Also, Northington hadn’t witnessed the alleged theft; the supervisor had. But Target’s supervisor didn’t return the Leesburg sergeant’s calls, Price said.

Northington said Target regularly pursued cases in which there were no live witnesses, only video footage gathered after the fact. He described instances in which merchandise was missing and he later reviewed video and inventory records and compiled a case.

“These are huge stores with limited staff,” Northington’s attorney Declan Leonard said. “It’s not feasible for them to see everything going on. That’s why they rely on the video.”

From early June to mid-July, no further action was taken by Target or the police sergeant. “He had some leave in there, some training; that’s not an excuse,” Price said of the sergeant. “Expectations within the agency are we wouldn’t go that long without some type of follow-up action.”

Northington said the sergeant “really made an honest attempt to get in contact with Target, and for some reason Target wouldn’t get in touch with him.”

Price said he did not know whether anyone had told Palmer about the investigation before the Fairfax sheriff’s investigators confronted him June 3. “There no indication that anybody from our department contacted Palmer,” he said. He said his department was a “professional, quality organization that is well-respected. If we have personnel that didn’t perform the way they should, we will take appropriate actions. Any indication of integrity violations will not be tolerated.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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