Va. chief gives testimony for 1st arrest in role after man shows up at PD HQ ‘being disruptive’
The case stemmed from an incident involving a suspect who became belligerent when the upside-down American flag he hung at a Va. police station was removed
By Peter Dujardin
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Police officers take the witness stand every day in courtrooms across Hampton Roads to testify about the arrests they’ve made.
It’s not typically the chief of police, however.
But Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew took the stand in court last week — testifying for more than an hour in a case brought about by his 2018 arrest of a local agitator. It’s the first and only arrest he’s made since he took the department’s helm four years ago.
“It’s the first — and hopefully the last,” Drew quipped after the trial, in good spirits after the man’s conviction and sentencing.
The Newport News jury took about 20 minutes to find Christopher W. McVey guilty of disorderly conduct but not guilty of trespassing.
The incident that led to McVey’s arrest occurred Oct. 23, 2018, at Newport News police headquarters — where McVey had hung an upside-down American flag outside the building. Drew went outside to take down the flag, and McVey followed the chief inside the lobby, where an argument ensued.
The chief clasped his hands and put his head down before the judge pronounced the sentence, saying later that he was “reflecting” on the case. While Drew said he was happy with the verdict and sentence, he said after the hearing that he “didn’t want to arrest Chris,” and wished it had never come to that.
McVey, 44, of Newport News, is well known to police for his confrontational approach to addressing officers, and he regularly sends derisive emails about their actions to city officials.
While police officers across the country are now used to having their every action with citizens recorded — either by their body-worn cameras or citizens’ cellphones — McVey tends to push the envelope.
With his cellphone camera rolling, he will approach officers in public buildings, convenience stores or crime scenes, seemingly trying to initiate a reaction from them, and often hurling expletive-laden personal insults their way.
Police said he was banned from Walmart stores following a 2019 incident in which he told an officer “I can’t wait for you to (expletive) die.” McVey often uploads to his YouTube channel, as was the case with footage he took of the interaction with the Newport News chief.
Drew said though his officers are trained not to respond to agitators, he said, it’s still hard “to be berated when we are trying to do our best.”
“We can’t have individuals that are berating officers and trying to incite a reaction,” Drew said in an interview this week. “Or yelling at citizens that are working behind the desk trying to serve citizens in a place where people are coming and going for service.”
Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile sentenced McVey to a year in jail — all suspended — and gave him a $1,000 “suspended” fine. He also ordered McVey to 100 hours of community service.
“It’s very important to me that you’re doing something positive,” Papile told him. “Instead of using your time to berate and belittle people, that you do something positive for this community.”
In the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2018, McVey went to the Newport News police headquarters, saying he had his First Amendment right to dissent in mind.
On a tree near the sidewalk, he hung an upside-down American flag, which he said symbolized “an American in distress.” He also carried several signs, including one he wore saying “Bad Cops are Bad Guys” on McVey’s front and “Blue Privilege is White Privilege” on his back.
“Popular speech needs no protection,” McVey said in an interview this week. “People that hold unpopular views should be allowed to express those views without fear of retribution from anybody, especially not from the government.”
The video of the incident, introduced as evidence in McVey’s court case, shows him outside police headquarters engaging with several officers in an antagonistic and mocking manner. He then sees Drew and Assistant Chief Mike Grinstead after the chief removed his flag from the tree.
The video shows McVey trailing the chief back into the lobby while demanding its return. Drew refused, saying he was holding it for possible evidence for a code violation.
“A police chief of the fourth-largest police department in the state of Virginia is gonna seize a man’s upside-down American flag!” McVey says in a raised voice in the lobby. “America baby!”
McVey then points his camera toward a worker behind a glass-enclosed counter and says, “Make them faces again, lady, go ahead.” But Drew tells him to “get away” and “don’t interact with the females,” and Grinstead reminds him that there’s a training class going on.
“So?” McVey said. “You just stole my property!”
“Step back,” Drew says. “I’m asking you to leave.” Though McVey tells the chief he wants to file a complaint with internal affairs, Drew says he’s being kicked out for “being disruptive.”
The video shows McVey stepping toward the doorway as the two chiefs are walking forward, guiding him toward the door.
Near the exit, Drew testified, McVey paused and put his cellphone directly into the chief’s face. That’s when Drew placed him under arrest.
In a video of the ride to the magistrate’s office, McVey says he’s always wanted to be arrested by the chief. When Drew said he was surprised anyone would want to be arrested, McVey responded: “First Amendment rights are important enough to be arrested.”
McVey has a history of run-ins with law enforcement. His issues with police began in 1991, when he was arrested at 15 for the felony charge of possessing a sawed-off shotgun.
“I was charged as an adult and made an example of,” McVey said.
A gardener and GrubHub delivery driver, McVey says he’s also angry about an arrest in Chesapeake in 2017. He and his wife got into an argument with a Farm Fresh cashier, with an off-duty Virginia Beach officer getting involved.
McVey asked Drew in 2018 to call Virginia Beach’s chief about the incident — asking him “to have a professional conversation with his colleague” — but Drew told him it would be improper to get involved.
A Chesapeake jury acquitted McVey of the felony charge of assaulting an officer but convicted him of disorderly conduct and obstructing justice.
At the sentencing in Newport News last week, Judge Papile said he would be keeping close tabs on McVey to ensure he maintains “good behavior.” The judge could impose the suspended jail time if McVey violates that requirement in the next year.
McVey, who said he was appealing the convictions, said he might watch his actions a little more carefully for the next year but that he has no intention of curtailing his activities.
Two days after the Newport News trial, McVey was back to monitoring and confronting police.
He saw a Hampton lieutenant parked in an unmarked SUV and began recording him. The officer began filming McVey in return, leading to a disagreement when McVey said he’d ask for the officer’s camera footage under an open records request.
“They’re very sensitive,” McVey said. “Their feelings are so easily hurt.”
Drew, for his part, said “aggressive language” can be “distracting” to officers, especially at crime or accident scenes. McVey has occasionally engaged officers at crime scenes, including at a tactical situation six weeks ago.
“We understand that people certainly have the right to protest and demonstrate, and I have no problem with that,” the chief said. “But there’s a line. And to seek an officer out of the situation they’re in, or to get up on them and berate them and use profanity, no one should have to deal with that.”