Fairfax Co. arrest blotter ended over immigration enforcement concerns

Fairfax County police have stopped publishing a weekly arrest blotter after county officials found it violated a policy that restricts the dissemination of personal information that could aid immigration enforcement.

Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups had been pushing for the change, arguing the weekly compilations that include arrestees’ addresses and other details could allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target immigrants for deportation and raise privacy concerns.

But open-government advocates and some politicians have criticized the move, saying it decreases police transparency and keeps critical safety information from the public, including details about some violent, sex and property crimes.

In a statement, ICE said that its “Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) does not use police blotter data to identify immigration enforcement targets in Fairfax County, Virginia,” and that officers use “intelligence-driven leads to identify specific individuals for arrest.”

Fairfax County police said it will continue to proactively release details of arrests in serious crimes, including homicides, shootings and offenses committed by those in positions of trust. Virginia residents will still be able to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get details of other arrests but will have to pay a processing fee.

Fairfax County police began to post the blotter on its website in 2016, after inquiries from the media and public about arrests, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. It included a date of the offense, name of the alleged offender, date of birth, charge, last known address of the offender and arrest location.

Guglielmi said the lists stopped being published as of Friday, meaning there is no comprehensive list of every person arrested in the county. The data was also used to power online crime maps, so those will go dark, as well. Guglielmi said police are exploring ways to bring back the blotter minus names and other details that won’t run afoul of county policy.

News outlets often use the blotter to guide reporting, and neighborhood groups use them to stay abreast of crime trends and offenses in a particular area. The crime blotter has been a staple at many departments in the D.C. region and around the country for decades.

“It was decided by then-Chief Roessler that the public was entitled to know who was arrested in their community, and if we wanted the community to share information we had to do the same as their police department,” Guglielmi said.

Fairfax County police said the disclosure of arrestees is required by the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), so the information cannot be restricted altogether. The department will continue to publish crime statistics and a weekly highlight of a selection of serious crimes.

The group ACLU People Power and others began lobbying for the change in arrest reporting after the county Board of Supervisors adopted a “Trust Policy” in January. The policy requires the county to cooperate with ICE when mandated by state or federal law but otherwise restricts the county from releasing the personal information of county residents that ICE could use to conduct immigration enforcement. The policy was a response to stepped-up ICE activity during the Trump administration.

In 2020, Fairfax County police also enacted a policy of barring officers from asking someone about their immigration status or giving information to ICE that would help it locate immigrants for deportation.

Diane Burkley Alejandro, executive director of ACLU People Power Fairfax, said she does not have evidence ICE is using the arrest lists in Fairfax County but argued the information provides a “road map” to the location of immigrants. She pointed out that ICE has begun employing tools that rely on data-mining in its enforcement efforts.

Alejandro said the lists create issues for nonimmigrants, as well, arguing they can act as a means of public shaming in the Internet era and are not updated to reflect when charges are dropped or people are acquitted of crimes.

“Fairfax County has embraced the idea that it won’t contribute to the harm caused by ICE enforcement,” Alejandro said. “If we find out there are situations that are like this with the police, we are going to raise these issues.”

Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield), the lone Republican on the Board of Supervisors and the only one to vote against the Trust Policy, said in a statement that restricting the arrest information shows the Trust Policy is too vague and open-ended.

“Removing this data sends the wrong message to our community on transparency,” Herrity said. “Not providing the public, the media, and organizations that utilize the data with information on crimes in our neighborhoods moves us drastically in the wrong direction. To expect people to file a FOIA request for such information is nonsensical.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) said in a statement the new policy strikes the right balance between sharing public safety information and protecting immigrants who are key to the county’s diversity and economy.

“Public safety officials will continue to share important information with the community and arrest data remains easily accessible via Freedom of Information Act requests,” McKay said. “The county is committed to the safety and security of everyone who lives, works and visits our community.”

But Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition of Open Government, said efforts to restrict information because of potentially bad outcomes are problematic. She said police blotters have been important tools for the public to monitor how local police departments are operating. She said she was unaware of any other police departments in the state dropping the arrest blotter over immigration enforcement concerns.

“It’s kind of like the scanner — no one had to make it available,” Rhyne said of the tools used by the public to monitor police radio traffic. “Those are very important tools for . . . informing the public. Now, more departments are encrypting radio traffic. It would be very unfortunate if police blotters were taken away, as well.”

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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