County auditor proposed to oversee Fairfax police misconduct probes

March 28, 2011

Fairfax County’s top administrator is proposing that the county’s internal auditor — rather than a committee of residents — review citizen appeals questioning the outcome of police misconduct investigations.

The recommendation comes after a citizens’ group, formed after county officers killed two motorists, requested a more independent process that involved civilians.

Residents led by a retired D.C. police detective formed the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability last year after two incidents on Route 1. In 2008, a teacher’s assistant died in a police crash; in 2009, an officer fatally shot unarmed motorist David Masters.

When a resident or fellow officer accuses a Fairfax officer of wrongdoing, the complaint is investigated by the police department’s internal affairs unit and resolved by the chief. Deemed personnel matters, the results of the investigations are rarely made public.

The citizens’ group, which found that Fairfax was the largest jurisdiction in the country without an independent citizen review board, recommended the creation of an oversight panel that includes county residents.

The coalition took its case to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, which asked Police Chief David M. Rohrer and County Executive Anthony H. Griffin to look into the matter. After doing so, Griffin decided against a review involving citizens.

Instead, in a “board item” Griffin will discuss at a supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, Griffin proposes using the county’s internal auditor, Christopher Pietsch, who investigates citizen complaints about fraud and ethics in county government.

If complainants are dissatisfied with the police investigation, Griffin said, they could appeal to the auditor. He would review the police investigation and report to the county executive.

Griffin noted that the auditor already works with the police department on his investigations and is familiar with its procedures. He also noted that Pietsch reports to the county executive, “thus satisfying the independent third party review requirement.”

Griffin’s memo to the board cited a 1997 study of police review boards and said there were four models for review of police conduct: three involving citizens and one using an ”independent auditor.” He said there was “no strong evidence that a citizen review board provides additional value to a review process.”

Rohrer and the police officers’ union support the idea, Griffin’s memo said.

Rohrer did not want to discuss the idea until it was officially proposed on Tuesday. Griffin and union head Michael Scanlon did not answer requests for comment.

The citizens’ coalition was not happy with the proposal. Nicholas Beltrante, the group’s founder, called Griffin’s idea “a step in the right direction,” but also said “it falls short of the [coalition’s] recommendation for a citizens’ review board that would be comprised of Fairfax County citizens.”

Philip K. Eure, executive director of the civilian-run D.C. Office of Police Complaints, also helps run the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. He called it “puzzling” that Fairfax never contacted the association for information on how a civilian review board might work.

Eure also noted that “since both the police chief and the internal auditor report to the same person, the county executive, questions could legitimately be raised about the auditor’s independence to offer frank assessments of problems within the police department.”

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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