(Updated at 10:35 a.m.) A public-records request sheds light on how the Arlington County Police Department justified a change to what the public can hear via police radio channels.

The Freedom of Information Act inquiry by ARLnow uncovered documents about the department’s March change to encrypt more radio chatter. The documents cited safety and security concerns, including some related to last summer’s police reform protests and the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.

Whereas the public — including news outlets like ARLnow and local TV stations — used to be able to hear more details about a police incident in progress in Arlington, now in most circumstances only the initial dispatch and basic information from the scene can be heard.

“Once a call for service is stabilized, it may be moved to an encrypted channel to protect the personal and confidential information of members of the public interacting with law enforcement and for tactical, operational and investigatory security reasons,” Arlington police spokeswoman Ashley Savage said in an email.

Authorities drafted a policy and created a memo in February after a workgroup focused on police radio traffic hashed out details and the department’s now-permanent police chief, Charles “Andy” Penn, wrote that he expected “questions/complaints” about the encryption.

The Feb. 23 police memo gives information about why the department encrypted an administrative channel and details that other channels were encrypted, too, including special ops for presidential and dignitary escorts and other special events, a civil disturbance unit’s operational channel, a frequently-used “talk around” channel for officers on the scenes of incident to communicate with one another, and an outreach zone channel involving school resource officers.

Authorities shared their reasoning in wanting to encrypt more channels, noting police in Illinois and Texas heard on their radios the hip-hop group N.W.A.’s anti-police song — apparently transmitted by someone with access to a radio capable of broadcasting on police channels — amid nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

“During the summer of 2020, protests and civil unrest across the country highlighted the growing threat to public safety communications and exposed its loopholes,” one email said. “Factions in Dallas and Chicago targeted these vulnerabilities by playing music over unencrypted radio channels, preventing legitimate use. This sort of tactic threatens both public safety personnel, who rely on the radio to communicate with each other, and the general public, who are in potential danger during an incident.”

An Arlington County document also stated that the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol rioting also involved bad actors trying to gain access to police radio systems to cause disruptions. Additional details were not given in emails obtained by ARLnow, some of which were redacted.

“We also took into consideration the events of January 6 as we witnessed bad actors actively trying to gain access to radio systems to cause disruptions,” one email said.

When asked about the alleged Jan. 6 police radio incident, Savage said Wednesday in an email that they weren’t aware of this happening on ACPD’s own channels. In D.C., Metropolitan Police Department also noted they didn’t observe this.

But ACPD’s emails did cite unspecified incidents in which individuals used police transmissions to create disruptions.

“We have experienced numerous occasions where individuals created problems for first responders by having had access to information conveyed over unencrypted channels,” the department said in drafting its policy. “This includes but is not limited to people coming to scenes and disrupting or causing delays in the handling of the call.”

Without the added encryption, authorities say criminals could have advanced warning of police actions, citizens could arrive at a scene before emergency responders, and law enforcement tactics and movements could be compromised.

Savage said all dispatched calls for service, including emergencies such as an armed robbery or school shooting, are broadcast over the primary radio channel, which is not encrypted and available for monitoring by the media or interested members of the public, using either commercially-available scanner radios, online services or smartphone apps.

Savage noted the department shares information about some police incidents through daily reports, an online crime map, Arlington’s Open Data Portal, news releases and Arlington Alert for emergency notifications in the event of public safety threats and traffic disruptions.

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Arlington’s pickleball players, eager to see the sport grow, will soon have more courts to play on.

The YMCA Arlington Tennis & Squash Center, at 3400 13th Street N. in the Virginia Square area, is repainting three tennis courts to make room for six pickleball courts. This change is part of an effort to meet the growing demand for facilities as the sport gains popularity.

“In the D.C. region, pickleball is exploding,” said Carlo Impeduglia, Associate Director of Racquets at the Y in Arlington.

He attributes the local and nationwide surge in interest in pickleball and other racquet sports to people searching for social sports where players can stay distanced during the pandemic.

The new courts at the Y facility will feature blended lines and changeable nets so players can choose either tennis or pickleball, Impeduglia said. Currently, the tennis courts have pickleball lines taped on.

Members will be able to reserve courts and participate in drop-in play, instructional clinics, socials and special events, he said. More permanent courts could be added in the future, too.

The changes come as the YMCA (3422 13th Street N.) seeks to upgrade its facilities in Arlington, replacing the Y as well as tennis and squash center with a seven-story tall apartment building and three-story tall facility that has a swimming pool and tennis and pickleball courts.

At the regional level, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington is jumping on the craze and opening pickleball courts throughout the D.C. area. Other new courts can be found at the Y’s locations in Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Silver Spring.

“The response to pickleball has been overwhelming by our membership,” said Pamela Curran, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “Pickleball is the perfect pandemic sport since people can still socially distance and get great exercise both outdoors and indoors at an extremely affordable price.”

Adrie Custer, the moderator of the Facebook group Pickleball Friends of Arlington, Virginia, said she has also seen a surge in interest. The group was founded in 2016 and today has more than 430 members — but nearly 200 of those members joined in the last year, she said.

“Once someone actually plays pickleball, they are hooked,” she said. “We expect our numbers to keep climbing. I believe it’s true that pickleball is the fastest-growing sport in America. It is a game that can be played enjoyably at many skill levels and by people of all ages.”

Players typically are 50 years of age and older, but Impeduglia said he has seen and heard of kids as young as 4 and seniors as old as 90 hitting the courts.

“It’s really all ages, all levels,” he said. “The sport has no boundaries.”

Nationally, the sport grew 21.3% to 4.2 million players in 2020, according to the USA Pickleball Association.

Arlington County Parks and Recreation provides indoor as well as outdoor courts for the sport, and classes are available for young players, too.

The county has added pickleball lines to multiple courts over the last few years and noticed an increase in overall use in parks amid the pandemic.

“The pandemic has not seemed to slow its growth,” county parks department spokeswoman Susan Kalish said of the sport. “It’s definitely popular in Arlington and the region in general.”

Photo via Lauren Bryan/Flickr

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2019 Armed Forces Cycling Classic Clarendon Cup race (photo courtesy Aaron Webb)

A weekend of bike races, including one of the most difficult closed-road events in the U.S., is on tap this weekend in Arlington.

The annual Armed Forces Cycling Classic is back after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic. The two-day event, which includes pro/am races in Clarendon and Crystal City, will close off roads and restrict parking.

“[The] Armed Forces Cycling Classic’s Clarendon Cup has been the Washington, D.C. region’s premier Pro/Am races since 1998,” the race’s website says. “The famous 1km course will test the athletes’ skill and stamina, as it carries a reputation as one of the most difficult criterium races in the U.S. due to technical demands of the course and the quality of the participants.”

Police will close the following roads in Crystal City from approximately 2 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday, June 5, for the event.

  • Crystal Drive, from 15th Street S. through 23rd Street S.
  • Wilson Blvd, from N. Kent Street to the Route 110 ramp
  • Route 110, from Rosslyn to Crystal City
  • S. Clark Street, from 20th Street S. to 23rd Street S.
  • 20th Street S., from Crystal Drive to S. Clark Street
  • 18th Street S., from Crystal Drive to S. Bell Street
  • 23rd Street S., from Crystal Drive to S. Clark Street
  • Crystal Drive (West side), from 23rd Street S. to the Central Center Parking Garage
  • 12th Street S. and Long Bridge Drive

For Clarendon, roadway closures will run from approximately 3 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 6, according to ACPD.

  • Wilson Blvd, from N. Fillmore Street to Washington Blvd
  • Clarendon Blvd, from Washington Blvd to N. Fillmore Street
  • Washington Blvd, from Wilson Blvd to N. Highland Street
  • N. Highland, N. Garfield and N. Fillmore streets, from Wilson Blvd to Washington Blvd

Apart from the races, the Armed Forces Classic features a Challenge Ride that’s open to military members and corporate groups. Registration — now closed — is linked to a participant’s service branch and status, including active duty, reservists and veterans. Riders of all abilities also participate in the closed course to see how many laps they can complete.

In preparing for this year’s event, organizers created a wave format to adhere to the Virginia’s now-former COVID-19 restrictions. Instead of 1,500 participants for the ride being released at once, they’ll start in groups.

The new system is still being used because organizers realized it might be a better way to conduct the rides, the event’s founder, Rob Laybourn, said.

“It’s kind of a COVID silver lining,” Laybourn told ARLnow. “We’re kind of excited to see how it works.”

Photo [1] courtesy Aaron Webb, [2] and [3] courtesy Armed Forces Cycling Classic

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A sugar maple has turned into a breathtaking wood-carved sculpture.

Local artist Andrew Mallon, known for similar artwork in the area, created the Greek mythological scene that shows when Daphne fled from Apollo and turned into a tree.

It’s on a side yard of Mary Maruca’s home on N. Park Drive, in the Arlington Forest neighborhood near Lubber Run Amphitheater.

“The decision to create the sculpture came as I wrestled with the pain of taking down the last of the three old trees that had lived in my yard before I bought my house,” she tells ARLnow.

Sugar maples can live for hundreds of years, and Maruca estimates this was one was a mere 80 years old. But an arborist diagnosed a fungus on it, so she needed to intervene due to its location between her and her neighbor’s homes.

Days before she was going to have the tree removed, she thought about turning it into a sculpture and reached out to Mallon. The timing seemed magical.

Maruca was always struck by illustrator Arthur Rackham’s depiction of Daphne’s escape, and Mallon did his own research, too. Mallon has turned dead and felled trees into sculptures of animals and more. He and Maruca collaborated with their ideas before the artist turned the tree into the art.

“After Andrew completed the sculpture, I also had a sense of another level of its significance — that it also made a state about times of change and what they require of us,” Maruca said. “Indeed, forms may change but beauty remains, and struggle is definitely part of that process.”

Though Daphne is depicted in a state of undress, unlike Rackham’s depiction Mallon gave her some strategic coverings, using meticulously sculpted leaves and part of the tree trunk. That should be more palatable to neighbors than the famous topless mermaid sculpture in Leeway-Overlee — the work of a Frederick, Md. sculptor — which attracted national media attention before being cut down in 2011.

Photos via Andrew Mallon/Facebook

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Arlington County is taking steps toward making virtual meeting participation a post-pandemic option for residents, staff and local officials.

“We are all trying to figure out what worked really well about virtual engagement and adapting it,” County Board Vice Chair Katie Cristol tells ARLnow.

The board expects to transition back to in-person meetings in June or July, Cristol said. But hybrid formats, such as in-person board and commission meetings with virtual public comments, could be here to stay.

County staff are working on securing funding to expand virtual and hybrid meeting options as part of the three-year Capital Improvement Plan, which the County Board is slated to adopt in July. The plan includes $1 million for adding or enhancing audio and visual capabilities in conference rooms.

The upgrades would help broaden public participation, “making in-person meetings accessible virtually by others unable to participate” in-person, according to a staff presentation.

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an emergency order and legislators changed state law to allow for online government meetings during the pandemic. Legislation approved in March will allow local officials to be exempt from in-person meeting standards during emergencies declared by local governing bodies, in addition to ones declared by the governor.

State open-meeting laws also allow officials on an individual, limited basis to attend a meeting virtually in certain circumstances, such as a temporary disability or personal matter.

The new legislation is not as robust as some officials advocated for last year, however. County Board member Libby Garvey and other women in politics testified before the Virginia Freedom of Information Association Council — a state agency that helps resolve disputes over Freedom of Information issues — and signed a joint letter supporting more flexible rules governing virtual attendance for public officials.

Now, Arlington County officials are looking to keep some virtual meeting adaptations in place, noting that other governmental bodies benefited from gathering virtually.

Cristol said many people, including appointed commission members who aren’t compensated for their time, can face difficulties with participating in meetings when juggling children’s needs, work and other issues.

She said in an email that the capital improvement proposal would be a foundational step toward “being able to livestream every commission and committee meeting.”

Pre-pandemic, Arlington County live-streamed only key meetings, including those of the County Board, Planning Commission and Transportation Commission.

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The county fair, a longstanding event and summer staple, is returning to Arlington this August.

Last year, organizers canceled the fair and took some events online due to the pandemic.

Now set for Aug. 18-22, the annual event will feature goat yoga and a beer garden — both of which debuted at the 2019 fair — as well as carnival rides, vendors, exhibits, music, and fair food. It will return to the Thomas Jefferson Community Center and grounds, at 3501 2nd Street S.

“2021 is the 45th anniversary of the Arlington County Fair!” said Barbi Broadus, chair of the Arlington County Fair board of directors. “We are planning a full fair experience for our fairgoers.”

And fairgoers are ready to experience fairs in all their glory, according to Broadus.

“Our ride vendor, RC Cole of Cole Shows, has been providing rides for fairs on the East Coast and said he was surprised by the enormous turnout he is seeing,” she said.

The news comes as other local programming, from food events to college commencements, are returning to normal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask even at crowded events. Virginia ended distancing requirements Friday, but businesses can still impose restrictions. Some exceptions still apply for wearing masks, such as health care facilities, public transit and indoors in Virginia schools.

The fair’s schedule is “coming soon,” according to its website.

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Arlington County’s form of government has largely stayed the same since 1930. Now, a local civic organization is inviting Arlingtonians to consider possible reforms.

The Arlington County Civic Federation, a nonprofit that provides a forum for about 90 civic groups to discuss community topics, is holding a series of Zoom meetings to discuss reforms, from changing the number of County Board members and their term limits to moving to ward-based Board representation to using ranked-choice voting.

“We are excited to engage in this important work of exploring ways to make our already well-functioning government even better and more representative of the communities it serves,” said Chris Wimbush, who chairs the subgroup looking into these changes.

That subgroup is the Task Force in Governance and Election Reform (TiGER), which was formed to look into implementing ranked-choice voting and other electoral reforms. CivFed launched the group after the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation allowing ranked-choice voting in local elections.

The committee’s deep dive includes these discussions, which kicked off May 17 and will continue every Monday through July, except Memorial Day. These meetings will evaluate the current state of Arlington elections, its form of government and public input structures, as well as models for reform.

“Arlington citizens can expect that the TiGER will, over the next year, conduct public fora and meetings regarding the current state of Arlington’s form of government and electoral system,” according to a press release. “TiGER will regularly report to the Arlington County Board, the Arlington School Board, community and civic groups, and the CivFed membership.”

The subgroup is also tasked with improving representation on the County Board and evaluating district representation rather than county-wide board elections. Already, the discussions have drawn people who want to see changes.

“I think in Arlington we’re so heavily Democratic,” attendee Douglas MacIvor said during the first meeting. “I like the district concept in order to get… different communities represented, but then I would worry that each district would end up becoming more polarized if we don’t have some mechanism to try to push towards more moderation from those candidates.”

Another meeting attendee, Michael Beer, said Arlington is diverse in ethnicity, gender and age but “where we’re falling short substantially is in competitive races.”

Ranked-choice voting, the main reason why TiGER was formed, is one of the biggest changes being discussed. People would rank their top County Board and School Board candidates and in cascading series of rounds the candidate with the fewest number of votes would be eliminated until a winner is selected.

Proponents say it can help more minorities get elected and reduce the impact of “spoiler” candidates who “siphon” votes away from leading ones. Still, some communities have repealed the election format after adopting it.

George Mason University’s Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government, told ARLnow that ranked-choice voting can help more centrist candidates but not always.

“I give the edge to candidates who have broader rather than intensive factional support,” Rozell said about the people who benefit from instant runoffs.

Ranked-choice voting has already been tested in Arlington. Last year, the Arlington County Democratic caucus used it, resulting in Takis Karantonis leapfrogging to victory in the third round to capture the party’s County Board nomination. He went on to win a seat on the board last July.

This change would require the County Board to pass an ordinance but local officials are still waiting on more state guidance. Gretchen Reinemeyer, the county’s general registrar, said guidelines could be discussed in June by the Virginia State Board of Elections.

One TiGER member, Chanda Choun, is stepping aside while he challenges Karantonis in his bid for the County Board.

It’s not just civically-involved residents who have argued for changes to the way Arlington is governed. Longtime former Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette said shortly before his retirement that he thinks Arlington’s form of government should be changed from that of a county, governed by an elected County Board and managed by an unelected County Manager, to that of a city, with an elected mayor and city council.

In 2010, an attempt to change Arlington’s form of government, to one in which County Board members are elected by districts rather than at-large, failed to gather enough valid petition signatures.

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A technology initiative to help Arlington emergency responders — by relying on the heat mapping of crowds — is expected to ramp up next month.

The pilot program looks to equip streetlights with sensors on the 2900 block of Wilson Blvd, feeding information to county emergency operations staff and allowing them to monitor potential incidents while helping first responders.

“This means that emergency responders will have more information and more knowledge about an event when arriving upon a situation,” Holly Hartell, assistant chief information officer for strategic initiatives with Arlington County, said in an email.

The sensors won’t provide images of individuals but instead will help with counting people, bicycles and vehicles, according to the county. The devices in the pilot will also be able to gather changes in temperature, relative humidity and air quality, the county says.

Sketch images will be gathered during a one-week testing period to compare actual crowd sizes to an algorithm connected to the sensors, but no images will be captured after that time, Hartell said.

The sensors will be on a wireless network, and non-visual metadata will be anonymized, aggregated and eventually sent to the county’s Open Data Portal and Emergency Operations Center watch desk, a room next to the county’s main dispatch floor that’s typically used for monitoring larger events.

Hartell said the installation and testing of the sensors are scheduled for mid- to late-June. Information gathered by the sensors could be shared on the county’s Open Data Portal as early as this fall.

The project initially considered gathering other kinds of data, such as logging information from nearby Bluetooth-enabled devices like mobile phones, but decided on optical sensors to maximize privacy protection, a county FAQ guide says.

“Arlington County has ownership and full authority over what data is collected,” the county noted in the FAQ.

The county says the technology could improve medical and other public safety response times, as well as awareness of erratic and unexpected incidents.

The project comes through a partnership with Comcast, the nonprofit U.S. Ignite and the state-funded Commonwealth Cyber Initiative.

“To launch the demonstration project, the County is accepting a donation of approximately $90,000 from the project partners,” the county said. “The County’s estimated contribution to the project is $13,601 for contractual services needed to mount and maintain the proposed light fixtures throughout the demonstration project.”

The yearlong demo could also help county officials consider using the technology at other locations in the future.

Photo 1 via Google Maps, photo 2 via Arlington County

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Arlington County Attorney Steve MacIsaac is leaving his position after two decades with the county government.

“Our attorney, Mr. MacIsaac, is going to be leaving us to return to where he started — to work for the Virginia Railway Express,” Matt de Ferranti, County Board Chair, said May 18 during a county meeting. “We will certainly miss Mr. MacIsaac.”

MacIsaac will be returning for a newly-created, full-time position as general counsel at Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

“It’s been for me a real pleasure to work with you,” MacIsaac said after County Board members gave him accolades during the meeting. “It’s really been enjoyable to work with you.”

VRE is owned by two parent authorities, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

MacIsaac spent 21 years with the county as its county attorney, said County Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol, who as Chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission helped lead others to create the new position at VRE.

“We are losing, in my opinion, the finest county attorney in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” County Board member Christian Dorsey said. “That is a tough pill to swallow.”

MacIsaac has served as part-time counsel to VRE since planning for the commuter rail service began in the mid-1980s.

Before working for Arlington County, McIsaac spent 18 years at the County Attorney’s Office in nearby Prince William County, which VRE services.

VRE connects D.C. with Manassas and I-95 corridor communities — such as Fredericksburg and beyond — with commuter rail service. A revamped Crystal City station is part of VRE’s future expansion plans. VRE is planning on expanding with weekday evening and weekend service, and has existing plans to double its daily train passengers by 2040.

Prince William County Supervisor Margaret Franklin, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission Chair, said MacIsaac’s “in-depth knowledge of VRE and the jurisdictions it serves will allow us to chart a course for the future that will better serve our communities and passengers.”

The County Board has appointed deputy county attorney MinhChau Corr as acting attorney after MacIsaac leaves. A search for his permanent replacement is expected to begin sometime this summer, county spokeswoman Cara O’Donnell said in an email.

MacIsaac’s last day will be this Friday, May 28. He’ll start his new position next week.

“Thank you,” MacIsaac said. “It’s been a great ride.”

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Arlington County has hit a setback in its fight against the opioid epidemic, as a high-stakes legal battle is mired in a squabble over where the case should be tried.

The county is currently suing dozens of businesses, such as CVS, Rite Aid, Walmart, McKesson Corporation and Express Scripts. In its lawsuit, the county says these manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies were key players in the opioid problem.

The County Board is seeking “at least” $150 million plus other damages — punitive damages of $350,000 per defendant.

The suit argues that the epidemic has harmed the Arlington community in myriad ways, ranging from more babies exposed to the drugs and increased health care costs to impacts on everything from courts to schools’ treatment centers and employee benefit plans.

“‘Arlington County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic,’ with increasing rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome and Hepatitis C since 2011,” notes a court document. “Moreover, the rate of overdose deaths in Arlington County has approximately tripled during the period of 1999 to 2016.”

The suit alleges that businesses caused harm by “misrepresenting the dangers of opioids, by failing in their obligations to report suspicious orders of opioid drugs, by working with their related pharmaceutical benefit manager entities to increase the usage of opioids, by flooding the country (and Arlington County)” with addictive drugs and more, lawyers for the county previously said in a court filing.

In court, the county has accused the defendants of gross negligence, unjust enrichment, conspiracy and more, saying prescription drug manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, pharmacy benefit managers and pharmacies have created this epidemic.

Lawyers for the county said the addictive pain medications — sometimes prescribed for everyday conditions such as knee pain, headaches and dental pain — can act as a gateway drug to heroin and more.

As the suit has worked its way through the legal system since 2019, the county and the defendants have tangled over which court should hear the case, with the county pushing for state court, and at least one defendant arguing for federal court as the venue. Earlier this month the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the lower federal court for further proceedings.

In appealing a U.S. district court decision about the venue selection, two defendants, Express Scripts Pharmacy Inc. and ESI Mail Pharmacy Service Inc., have argued they were administering a mail order pharmacy as part of the military’s TRICARE health program, thus making it a federal case, the appeals court said.

Those two affiliated defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The county said pharmacy benefit managers, including Express Scripts and others, are gatekeepers to the vast majority of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. and therefore influence prescription drug utilization, suggesting responsibility for monitoring and guarding against misconduct.

Photo by Joe Gratz/Flickr

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A music-producing memorial tied to World War II received some fanfare this morning, as part of a restoration effort that began in 2019.

The towering Netherlands Carillon, located near the Marine Corps War Memorial and a short walk from Rosslyn, had its bells removed and shipped back to the Netherlands for restoration and tuning. The country gifted the memorial to the U.S. for its help during and after the war.

On Thursday morning, a new bell weighing over three tons was raised by a crane, in a ceremony that featured the U.S. and Dutch anthems as well as speakers including André Haspels, ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The hoisted George C. Marshall Bell is named after the former secretary of state who under President Harry Truman helped Western Europe rebuild with the Marshall Plan.

The bell, along with two other new bells, were cast in 2020 in the Netherlands.

The carillon was first installed in D.C. in West Potomac Park before being relocated next to the war memorial in Arlington in 1960.

The three new bells will make it a grand carillon — a term for the musical instruments that have more than 50 bells.

The other two bells will be added later, and the National Park Service expects the restoration to be complete by this fall. Those other bells are being named in honor of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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