Alexandria Public Safety Director Charles T. Strobel says that "at the very worst" a review of how he handled a drug investigation last year may raise questions about his judgment, but not his integrity.
"I feel there has been some misperception and misinformation purposefully conveyed to some sources for the purpose of causing the issue we are facing today to come about," Strobel said in an interview last week. "I don't know why it's being orchestrated the way it is. I think it's very unjust. I think it's most undeserving."
Strobel has been at the center of a controversy for the past two weeks over allegations made by members of his police department that he prematurely halted a drug investigation after the name of Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris turned up on a tape recording of a police informant. The Alexandria City Council on Dec. 22 decided to hire a Washington attorney to investigate the allegations but Thursday failed to implement that decision after the three Republicans on the council voiced doubts about it.
Mayor Charles E. Beatley, a Democrat, then declined to press for the outside investigation, saying the proposal lacks sufficient support on the council. City Manager Douglas Harman, whose actions in the case also were to be investigated, then called on Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch to review the allegations against Strobel, a Harman appointee.
Strobel, 47, an Alexandria native who joined the city police force in 1958, has defended his handling of the investigation and said it has turned up no evidence of wrongdoing by Norris. Norris, a Republican, also has denied any wrongdoing.
In the interview last week, Strobel said the controversy has raised many questions about his department. "Our image is being questioned. Our integrity is being questioned. Our performance is being questioned," he said.
While Alexandria's 240-member police department generally is regarded as competent and courteous, it has been criticized for its failure to solve several highly publicized murders, including the 1978 Old Town slaying of socialite Donita Cutts and the slaying last year of Dr. Robert S. Rixse, a pediatrician.
The current questions about the drug investigation also have affected morale on the force. "I'm beginning to think this is New York City rather than Alexandria," said Barry Schiftic, president of the Alexandria Police Association, whose membership includes more than 90 percent of the force. "It's so ridiculous," said Schiftic. "I hate to have anything tried in the newspapers. It throws a shadow over every policeman in the city."
Strobel, who was picked by Harman in 1983 for the $65,000 job as head of the public safety department that combines police and fire departments, agreed that the current controversy has surfaced with "bad, bad timing." He said it can only further delay consolidations in the public safety agencies.
In addition, the police force has been beset by internal controversy stemming from a case in which a member of the force raised questions about Strobel's review of another criminal investigation.
In that case, an investigator was transferred to patrol duties as punishment for an investigation he began into how Strobel handled allegations of criminal misconduct against a high-ranking officer. Instead of referring the allegations to the force's internal affairs unit, Strobel initially reviewed the allegations himself, concluding that there was no criminal wrongdoing.
The investigator, Joseph Morrash, took his complaint over the transfer to circuit court and then to a binding arbitration panel. The panel ruled that Strobel had punished Morrash and ordered him reinstated to his investigator's job.
Morrash, along with another police officer and a former police investigator, is now one of three policemen alleging that Strobel prematurely ended the 1984 drug investigation.
Strobel defended the way he handled the original allegations against the first officer. "I still do not feel I erred in any way in making the review I made," he said. "It was investigated two times by this department," once by himself and once by the internal affairs unit.
Morrash's internal investigation of Strobel had the sanction of the Alexandria Police Association, but even now some members of the force think the controversy over it went on too long and hurt the entire force.
"I'm inclined to think the issue went way beyond what it should have," said police Capt. Carl Dutzman, who was Morrash's nominee to the arbitration panel. "It persisted for much longer than our best interest. I'm talking about everyone's best interest."
Strobel said the controversy over the drug investigation is not the first time "my integrity has been questioned." In 1979 he said some members of the City Council pressured him to drop an investigation of former city prosecutor William Cowhig, an investigation that eventually led to Cowhig's indictment on charges of taking payoffs from the operators of the illegal bingo games in the city. The prosecutor was tried and acquitted on those charges but resigned under pressure after it was alleged he had solicited sexual favors from the wife of a man he was prosecuting.
"It was strongly suggested to me that the investigation was not necessary," Strobel said.
The public safety department that Strobel heads was to include Sheriff Norris' department, but Norris, an elected official, backed out of the merger. Some members of the Alexandria City Council have expressed concern that neither Strobel nor Harman had mentioned to them that Norris' name had turned up in the drug investigation at the time they were discussing the merger of the sheriff's office into the public safety department.
The department itself has been one of the biggest controversies Harman and Strobel have faced. Shortly after Harman announced that Strobel would be named head of the department, fire chief Charles H. Rule quit in anger.