HOW LONG are the good burghers of Arlington going to put up with the vulgar, barbaric procedures used every day by Sheriff Jim Gondles? Mr. Gondles requires that all persons who enter his custody, whether for "five minutes or five days," take off all their clothes and expose their body "cavities" to the visual inspection of a deputy sheriff. He says he believes this is necessary to make sure no one smuggles weapons or dope into his jail.
This unbelievable policy can only reflect a total insensitivity to the personal dignity of individuals or a sick desire to use official power to degrade the ordinary citizen. It is a policy so unnecessary for jailhouse security that no other jailer in Washington area either practices or defends it. Yet in Arlington -- which fancies itself the area's most high-minded and self-conscious jurisdiction -- this has been condoned without much complaint for six years.
No one knows how many citizens have been forced during those years to stand stark naked and expose the most intimate parts of their bodies to satisfy the sheriff's curiosity about whether they have a weapon of some drugs tucked away somewhere. In the last year alone, about 4,500 people underwent that kind of search.
Why, until recent months, did no one complain? Were some citizens who fell victim to this procedure too embarrassed by having been arrested to protest? Were the others too intimidated to raise the matter? Where were the rest of Arlington's public officials who, by their lack of knowledge or silence, permitted this flagrant violation of basic rights to go on?
Fortunately, a female lawyer who was strip-searched after being arrested on a charge of drunken driving finally brought the matter out into the open. Since she spoke out, others have told of being stripped and searched after being arrested for such weighty offenses as eating food on a Metro train, playing a stereo too loudly and writing obscenities on a traffic ticket.
Mr. Gondles says the strip-searches began after a deputy sheriff was fatally shot by a shoplifting suspect who had a concealed pistol. But there are ways to determine who has a concealed weapon other than by turning all prisoners into nudists -- such as, to name but one, walking prisoners past a metal detector. Other jailers provide adequate protection at least against prisoners who will only be in custody for a few minutes or hours while someone makes bond for them.
Mr. Gondles first said he would not change his policy until ordered by a court to do so. More recently, he has said he is thinking about changing it. That is not good enough. If he continues one more day to fail to distinguish between his short-term and long-term customers and to insist that the nude bodies of all of them be carefully inspeced by his staff, the rest of Arlington's officials need wait no longer for him to think. Although none of them has any direct authority over him (sheriffs in Virginia are free-standing officials), they must take whatever steps they can to stop the procedure, now.