12 INVESTIGATES: PIOs under one entity

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a story some city leaders didn't want you to know about - accusations the mayor's office is hindering the flow of information to the public by reorganizing government without city council's permission.

We wanted to know, how common is a move like this? Do any other cities or counties in Virginia place police public information officers (PIOs) under the control of one entity - like a mayor's office?

12 Investigates did some digging and discovered this change is not a common practice in the Commonwealth. In fact, several PIOs questioned the move, saying it could bog down the flow of information to citizens.

We called the public information offices for Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Roanoke police departments. None of them have PIOs under the control of one entity like a mayor's office.

We did find one:The Fairfax County Police Department. It is in the county code that if more than one agency shows up at a scene, the county public affairs office takes over. Meaning, if there's an explosion and police and fire show up, then Fairfax County's Public Affairs Director Merni Fitzgerald takes charge.

We spoke with her by phone about how it works.

"I have an indirect supervisory role with all the of county communicators, some of whom are based in other departments," said Fitzgerald. "We work together all the time, we have close relationships. When it comes right down to it, it has to do with the public needing good information and us putting together our own procedures and protocols to make sure that happens."

Unlike Richmond's initial proposal, Fitzgerald is not in control of hiring, firing and schedules for the PIOs in other agencies. She says she just has a direct line to them all. She also has administration rights to all of the agencies' social media pages. She says this model works for Fairfax County, which also serves more than a million people. She's not aware of any other county or city in Virginia doing this.

A police officer who serves as a PIO in Virginia Beach told us their locality considered doing this, but decided against it. The main reason it was dropped was because of sensitive police department investigations. The city thought there could be legal issues if too many people knew inside information about police investigations.

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