By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; B01
Nicholas Beltrante is an unlikely candidate to take on one of the nation's largest suburban police forces. He's 82, a World War II veteran, a former D.C. police officer, longtime private investigator, lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and frequent appointee to criminal justice advisory boards.
But the Mount Vernon resident was troubled by the police crash that killed teacher's assistant Ashley McIntosh on Route 1 in 2008, and then bothered by the fatal shooting of unarmed motorist David Masters on Route 1 last November. In both cases, Fairfax police disclosed little information about the events, did not release the names of the officers involved and would not discuss any internal discipline, for various long-standing policy reasons.
Now his dogged efforts and growing disillusion have created a groundswell, and some county residents have launched an effort to create a citizens group to oversee the Fairfax Police Department.
Fairfax police and politicians say they're open to the idea. Mary Ann Jennings, a police spokeswoman, said her department is researching oversight groups around the country and "we want to closely examine the most successful among those to ensure fairness" to officers as well as civilians.
Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, said she had heard of Beltrante's effort and discussed it with Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer. "There could be a place for some kind of a citizen body that could be a constructive forum for these issues," Bulova said. Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said he would present the idea to the board for consideration.
"When Dave Masters got killed," Beltrante said, "I said, 'I've got to do something about this. This is too much.' The police are sort of out of control. Not all of them. A small number. I think mostly they do a great job. We need them, and they need us, the citizens."
Citizen groups overseeing police departments are not a new idea. The Office of Police Complaints in the District often is cited as a national model. Reestablished by the D.C. Council in 2001, it has subpoena power and independent investigators. Its work has resulted in departmental discipline including reprimands, suspensions and termination.
Philip K. Eure, executive director of the D.C. Office of Police Complaints and president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said there are 150 citizen groups involved in police oversight around the country, including in most large cities. Fairfax's police force is "one of the largest law enforcement agencies without any form of public review," he said. "You think of Fairfax County as being this 'best practices' county government, which is why it's somewhat shocking they're behind the curve on this idea."A new calling
Beltrante retired from the D.C. police as a sergeant after 14 years and opened up Beltrante and Associates. The Washington Post once called him "the dean of Washington's private investigators." After the Watergate break-in, the Democratic National Committee hired him to de-bug their offices in 1972. Married for 35 years, he is the father of three, grandfather of six and great-grandfather of one.
As he followed the cases of McIntosh and Masters, he began to put his investigative skills to work. He researched civilian oversight panels, read books on the subject and called various police oversight officials around the country.
Next, he rounded up support from groups such as the local NAACP branch, the ACLU, the National Police Accountability Project in Boston and the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. The Fairfax branch of the NAACP appointed one of its members to help, although it recently posted a statement on its Web site saying it has not decided whether to become involved. Branch President Olivia Jones-Smith did not respond to requests for clarification.
Beltrante named the group the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. And he did it all without the Internet -- no computer, no e-mail account, no BlackBerry. Beltrante used his phone, his fax machine, and a typewriter with the all-caps key apparently stuck.
In April, Beltrante convened the Citizens Coalition's first meeting at a public library in Mount Vernon. Representatives from the NAACP and the ACLU's Racial Justice Program and Immigrants' Rights Project attended and offered their support, as did Gail Masters, the still-grieving ex-wife of David Masters, and Cindy Colasanto, the mother of McIntosh.
Beltrante said that Fairfax officers had shot and killed nine people since 2006 and that a 10th person recently was shot twice in the chest at close range but survived. He said the group had two goals: holding police accountable for their actions on duty and making more police reports and records open to the public.
He noted that Fairfax recently paid $1.5 million to McIntosh's family to settle the lawsuit filed after Officer Amanda Perry ran through a red light and killed McIntosh. "What is the cost to the taxpayer of this police abuse?" Beltrante said.Getting organized
With the NAACP's help, Beltrante set up an e-mail address and is creating a Web site. He wants to begin taking complaints and investigating them, and he has sent a letter to Rohrer asking for cooperation. He also has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the name of the officer who shot Masters -- a shooting ruled justifiable by the Fairfax prosecutor. Beltrante said if the police reject his request, he will challenge it in court.
Samuel Walker, the author of two books on civilian oversight of police, said there are two models of police review panels. One involves the panel doing its own investigations with its own staff. The other, which Walker gradually came to favor, simply oversees the results of police internal affairs investigations to look for patterns or problems.
"When you focus on individual cases," Walker said, "you don't focus on the underlying causes."
The Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.