Arlington Sheriff Jim Gondles, bowing to intense political pressure, yesterday abandoned his controversial policy of forcing everyone brought into his jail to be stripped and searched for drugs and weapons that might be hidden in their "body cavities."
Gondles, a 33-year-old, first-term Democrat and the only Washington area jailer with such a policy, had resisted switching his policy, declaring it was essential to security and that he would reverse it only if ordered by a court.
But yesterday the sheriff succumbed to pressures that have grown since the disclosure earlier this year that his staff strip searched a female Washington secretary arrested for eating a sandwich on a Metro subway. The practice prompted a sharp outcry in Arlington, generally regarded as one of Virginia's most liberal communities, and a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which branded the searches humiliating and unnecessary for jail security.
From now on, Gondles announced in a press release yesterday, persons arrested will be strip searched only "if there is probable cause to believe that the individual presents a danger to the officers or other inmates" or when "it is apparent that an individual is going to be housed with the general [jail] population," for an extended period.
Unlike authorities in other area jurisdictions and most communities around the country, Gondles had required all persons held in the county jail -- however briefly -- to submit to strip searches. Although Gondles could not be reached for comment yesterday after his office issued a press release, other law enforcement officials said his new policy, paralleling those at other area jails, could reduce the number of strip searches in Arlington to as low as 5 percent of the people brought to the jail.
Under Virginia law, each local sheriff may determine when -- or whether -- to enforce such a policy.
Northern Virginia politicians, law enforcement officers and even the ACLU, reacted favorably to Gondles' decision. "This is the kind of response a lot of people were hoping he would make," said Democratic State Sen. Edward Holland of Arlington, a strong supporter of Gondles.
Del. Elise Heinz, a Democrat who represents Arlington and Alexandria in Richmond, said she was "greatly relieved" by the announcement, calling it an "appropriate response" to the mounting criticism. "I couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it," she said.
Alexandria Sheriff Mike Norris, another critic of the searches, said it "takes personal courage to do what he's doing." But Democratic State Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County said Gondles' action was "too little, too late -- he's a one-term sheriff."
Saslaw, who predicted that the policy would cost Gondles his job at the next election, said he will introduce a bill in the General Assembly that would ban strip searches on any person accused of minor misdemeanors.
Leonard Rubenstein, attorney for the ACLU, which has three lawsuits pending against Gondles, said the sheriff's statement was "definitely a step in the right direction" but added that the suits would not be dropped until there is court-approved settlement spelling out the new policy.
Rubenstein also said that the new policy would not deter his clients -- among them the woman arrested for eating the sandwich, a man who was arrested for writing obscenities on a check he gave the county, and a woman arrested for playing her stereo too loud -- from seeking compensatory damages from Gondles for being stripped and searched in the jail.
Democratic Del. Warren Stambaugh, another Gondles ally, expressed some reservations about Gondels' timing. "It worries me that he's changing his policy in the middle of a lawsuit," Stambaugh said, calling the change a "nervy move. He could be opening himself up to liability [for the damages] by changing the policy."
Gondles inherited the search policy from his political mentor, retired Arlington Sheriff J. Elwood Clements, who instituted the policy six years ago after an officer was fatally shot in a police cruiser by a suspect who pulled a gun from his pants.
The uproar over the policy began a few months after Gondles took office. Arlington attorney Lucy N. Logan, strip searched after having been arrested on a drunk driving charge, filed suit against the sheriff's office over the practice. Although Logan was acquitted on the driving charge, her suit was dismissed by federal District Judge Oren R. Lewis. But three other persons quickly sued the county.
Although Gondles said in his press release that he was changing the policy immediately, he emphasized that it is a temporary change, which suggests that he might reinstate the old policy if he fails next year to receive additional jail officers or equipment that he insists he must have to maintain security.
He said he plans to use federal funds to purchase metal detectors for the booking area and will try to get funding for electronic video and sound equipment to monitor the booking area, in which people held in the jail for a short time are kept.
Gondles also announced the appointment of an eight-member "review and policy committee" to assist him in developing a permanent booking policy for his jail. He named prominent Arlington attorney Betty Thompson, president-elect of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, to head the committee, which is expected to hold its first meeting sometime in mid-January.
Other members are: Ola Willoughby, a member of the Arlington Civil Service Commission; Ben Kendrick and Frank Ball Jr., both Arlington attorneys; George Joseph, chairman of the Arlington Criminal Justice Advisory Board; Marge McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association; Les Phillips, former Arlington County Board member and Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. executive; and Mary Kay Parker, former president of the Arlington League of Women Voters.