Fairfax County Police Department's deputy chief said yesterday that his department's procedure for investigating an officer accused of brutality is biased in favor of the accused officer and "unfair to the public."
Speaking at a public forum on the deaths of three inmates who died in the past six months after staying in the county jail, Dputy Chief Kenneth R. Wilson said he favors a "fair mixture" of citizens and police in judging police brutality complaints.
Under the department's present method of judging policemen accused of brutality, the accused chooses one of the three officers on the review panel that determines whether excess force was used.
The procedure, used by police across Virginia, went into effect last July after approval by the General Assembly. It is part of a controversial bill known as "The Policeman's Bill of Rights," which was twice vetoed by former Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin before being signed by Gov. John N. Dalton.
"I don't like it," Wilson said. "I think (the procedure) is in favor of the police officer. I don't think it should be in favor of anyone. It should be fair."
Wilson spoke before a panel of 14 local officials, including Rep. Herbert E. Harris II (D-Va.), state Sen Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) and Supervisor Warren I. Cikins (D-Mount Vernon), after the panel had heard two days of testimony about alleged incidents of police brutality. The hearings were held at the Saunders B. Moon Community Center in Gum Springs, Fairfax's largest black community.
Most of the speakers dealt with the events surrounding the arrest and death of 28-year-old Donald L. Ferguson, a constructiodn worker from Gum Springs who died in December after staying four day in the new county jail.
"The people want to know why, why, why," said James Goins,d head of the 8th Congressionald District black caucus. "Why should anyone have to die in this new, modern jail?"
The man in charge of running the jail, Fairfax County Sheriff James D. Swinson, did not attend the hearings, although he said earlier he would "because it is my duty as a public official." Swinson could not be reached yesterday for commebt.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, after hearing a report on the events surrounding Ferguson's death, voted last week to hire a consulting firm to study the way the Fairfax jail is run.
Two of Ferguson's brothers, Alvin and Howard Jr., told the panel that their brother was not an alcoholic and that when he called them from the county jail he sounded healthy. James Lee Harris, who was arrested on Dec. 2 with Ferguson, said that Ferguson was not drunk when arrested.
Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., who investigated Ferguson's death at the request of the supervisors, said last week that Ferguson went into acute alcohol withdrawal on Dec. 4, and that he was not treated in accordance with the jail's rules.
Ferguson was denied medication that had been prescribed for him and held in handcuffs and leg irons for nearly two days without food or water, Horan siad.
Phillip Hirschkop, a lawyer who often works for the American Civil Liberties Union and who has been retained to represent the Ferguson family, told the panel yesterday that the most basic problem in the running of the jail is that it is a "fiefdom under the total control" of Swinson.
"We have been decived by these nice facilities at the jail (completed last year at a cost of $4.6 million)," Hirschkop said. "But it's not the walls, it's the people inside. There is no real control when they engage in this kind of conduct."
The sheriff in Fairfax is elected every four years, and although the supervisors control part of his budget, the sheriff has total control over the operation of the jail.
Gartlan, cochairman of the panel, said yesterday there is clearly a "feeling of alienation and estrangement" between the people of Gum Springs and law enforcement authorities.
Capt. Harry Sommers, commander of Fairfax police in the area, agreed that police face "an obvious problem" there.
Sommers said race relations coudld be improved if he had more black officers. Of the 85 police officers in the area, five are black, he said.
Deputy Chief Wilson said yesterday less than 3 percent of the police force is black and that there are no blacks in top supervisory positions on the 675-member department.