It was about 3 a.m., a year ago last fall, when Rick Gooden opened the door of his McLean home to a group of Fairfax County policemen. They had been chasing a burglar in the neighborhood and police dogs had lost the scent near Gooden's house.
"The suspect's taller then myself -- you're it," Gooden claims one officer bluntly told him. The 28-year-old, self-employed printing machines salesman says he invited the police in and explained he had been home all evening and had taken a shower earlier. But when police checked two of the home's three bathrooms and didn't find any wet towels, "they decided I was lying," Gooden says.
Gooden was arrested on a burglary charge the next day, while he was at the police station filing a complaint against the officers who had come into his home. After police said a maid had identified his picture, Gooden spent a night in jail, then hired a private investigator and an interpreter. When the maid, an illegal alien from Thailand, gave a sworn deposition saying she could not identify anyone, the county declined to prosecute.
The police department, calling its arrest procedures perfectly legal, dismissed Gooden's complaint but did counsel one officer against being unduly argumentative that night. "Whitewash," cries Gooden, who says he is still furious over his arrest.
Across Fairfax, from the fashionable suburban cul-de-sacs in McLean to the tawdry night spots along the Rte. 1 strip in Groveton, many residents say they, too, have suffered through similar encounters with the county police force.
Last year alone, according to preliminary police figures, there were 140 formal complaints of misconduct filed against the Fairfax Police Department, more than any other local suburban jurisdiction. Prince George's County, a locality with a larger population and a history of community-police conflict, had 84.
"Over the years, there seems to be a more pronounced pattern of complaints about the Fairfax County police," says Vic Glasberg, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Of all police issues, abusive misconduct by officers is perhaps the most sensitive. Police tend to dismiss citizen complaints as frivolous, and many, if not most, are. Yet over the years county officers have been involved in a number of questionable actions, including several fatal shooting incidents later declared justified by department investigators.
Nor do complaints come only from the county's low-income areas. The crime committee of the Annandale Chamber of Commerce, for instance, began monitoring police performance three years ago and has collected numerous allegations of ineptness, harassment and excessive use of force.
"I did a lot of door knocking in the last campaign, and I was told a lot of stories of police goof-ups that turned out to be true," says Supervisor Audrey Moore, who represents Annandale on the county board. "It surprised me very much."
Considered a highly professional force by other area police officials, the Fairfax County police are generally popular with the public and enjoy the enthusiastic backing of nearly all the people who run the county and budget county funds.
"Our policemen are handsome, outgoing, sincere, very dedicated and perform their jobs out of motivation for public service," says Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, vice chairman of the county board, who argues that there are bound to be certain shortcomings "when you protect the masses." She says it's getting harder and harder to find police officers "and I don't want them being abused -- whether by the police department or the press."
Still, officials and others say the Fairfax police are swamped with work and can't keep pace with a geographically vast county that has doubled the number of its dwelling units in the last 10 years but increased the size of its force by fewer than 300 during the same decade. With 722 sworn officers to police a population of nearly 600,000 the Fairfax force is only one-fifth the size of the D.C. force of 3,600 officers who police a population of comparable size.
Furthermore, some police and civic leaders say, the growth and affluence of Fairfax isolates the officers from the community they are hired to serve. Many on the force say they cannot afford to live in Fairfax and are forced to take part-time jobs in supplement their $14,000-to-$23,000-a-year police salaries. Yet they find themselves cruising neighborhoods dotted with $200,000 homes and policing citizens who are more to giving orders than taking them.
"This is Fairfax County, not Fort Apache, the Bronx," says policewoman Nancy Lutz-Fitzgerald. "Here, the people are used to being treated with kid gloves. They run their own companies or they're president of this or that. So just by handcuffing people, we're seen as being brutal."
Another officer complained that television fosters an unrealistic image of police as always easygoing and polite. "But if you get somebody out of a car and he has his hand in his pocket and is acting weird, you're liable to pull a gun on him."
The most common police-citizen confrontations in Fairfax occur during arrests, particularly, police say, if the suspect is high on drugs or alcohol. Some county residents have criticized the department's crime-fighting efforts or protests that police are too slow to respond to emergency calls. Usually, however, the complaints -- some widely publicized, some never officially filed -- accuse individual officers of being quick-tempered authoritarians -- what the department calls "badge heavy."
"The average citizen may come into contact with the police once in a lifetime," says Mason District Sgt. Tom Burnel, a 10-year veteran of the force. "But in that contact, the police can make a friend or an enemy for life."
Over the past three years, complaints and charges of police inefficiency, harrassment and brutality have included the following:
When Robert Helsel's car had a blowout and skidded off the road near West Springfield last winter, the 34-year-old management consultant thought he probably deserved a medal for the way he controlled the vehicle and avoided injuring anyone.
Instead, seconds later, Helsel was being frisked by a county police. He was handcuffed, put in the back of a police cruiser and hauled off to the station under arrest for drunken driving. "I wasn't drunk," said Helsel, who ways he had further difficulties when the breathalizer test he volunteered to take came up negative and police accused him of trying to cheat on it. "I was on my way home from work and had an accident, and suddenly I was being treated like I had robbed a bank or murdered someone." On the advice of his attorney, he agreed to enroll in an Alcohol Safety Action Project (ASAP) and the charge was lowered to reckless driving.
Jim Wray, a patent attorney in Arlington, found himself surrounded by the flashing lights of three more cruisers after he tried -- and failed -- to explain to one Fairfax officer that the double highway line he had crossed was so faded he believed it a dotted line.
"I asked the officer to take me back and I'd show him, but he refused and called for reinforcements" says Wray, who still has good feelings overall about the department. The complaint he filed against police was not sustained. Two days after his arrest the faded highway markings were repainted, but Wray nonetheless was convicted of crossing a double line.
A client of attorney Elaine Cassell of Falls Church was arrested for drunk driving. At the jail a sheriff's deputy found five sealed and clearly labeled packets of "BC" brand headache powder in the man's wallet. Police then charged him with possession of heroin with intent to distribute. A laboratory test subsequently revealed that the drugs were indeed headache powders.
A Springfield attorney claimed that a county policeman "beat me up" when the attorney drove through a red light he thought was broken. "This guy was about to climb the walls at my questioning him about the light," says the lawyer, who wants to remain anonymous in hopes of getting the incident expunged from police records.
". . . He throws down his clipboard, grabs my wrists, twists my left arm behind my back and starts choking me." The policeman drew his gun at one point and the attorney says his "only thought then was that I was abvout to be shot for running a red light -- that's what it would say on my tombstone."
Tim Rickman flashed his lights and honked his horn at a county cruiser he says was speeding. When the officer followed Rickman home and tried to arrest him for drunken driving, his father, mother and brother fought with police. A county judge later dismissed all charges against the family, saying he could not find "one scintilla of evidence" to support the initial drunken-driving charge. No disciplinary action was taken against the officer, who was transferred.
Fairfax Del. Warren E. Barry had a minor collision with another driver one rainy evening. A policeman spent five minutes at the scene checking to see there were no injuries, and the Republican legislator said he had forgotten about it until two weeks later when another officer walked into his office and charged Barry with reckless driving.
"You're the one who had the law changed," Barry recalled the officer told him. For years Fairfax police had been charging drivers involved in "fender benders" with failure to maintain proper control of a vehicle -- until Barry got a state attorney general's ruling that no such law existed. Apparently the police had never forgiven him, says Barry, who later got a judge to dismiss the charge against him.
Jules Sussman, an engineer, has been furious with police ever since officers took 13 minutes to respond to a burglary in progress at his McLean home this past fall. "The police responded from Reston, Merrifield and Chesterbrook but no one was in the McLean area," said Sussman, who lives near the force's McLean station. "The girl at the central office kept me on the phone for two minutes interviewing me for details."
Not everyone who has a complaint against the police necessarily files one. Helsel, for instance, says he "was ready to go to the wall" against the police. "But the bottom line is that it's the officer's word against mine. When something like this happens, you walk away with a terrible anger. I'm still hoping somebody comes by and asks me to contribute to a police benefit or something."
Thirty-one of the 140 complaints lodged against Fairfax officers last year included allegations of excessive use of force. County officials note that this is not a high figure, considering that officers had some 267,000 contacts with citizens last year.
But Fairfax County's neighbors across the Potomac, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which are comparable in size, report fewer citizen complaints. Montgomery's jpolice force, only slightly larger than Fairfax's, had 82 complaints filed against it last year. Prince George's County, whose 800 officers had some 331,605 contacts with the county's 665,000 residents, had 84 complaints filed, including 22 allegations of excessive use of force.
The Fairfax department sustained 19 of the complaints filed against its officers last year. Three of the officers either resigned or were dismissed as a result of internal reviews. Others received lesser disciplinary action such as oral or written reprimands and temporary suspension from duty without pay.
Elsewhere in Northern virginia, the Alexandria force sustained two out of 12 complaints against it. According to 1979 reports, Arlington sustained none of the eight complaints filed against that county's force. In Maryland, Prince George's County sustained 13 of the 84 complaints filed against police in 1980, and Montgomery County sustained 15 of the 82 complaints filed against its officers for the same year.
Unlike arrests, which must be tried in public, any complaint filed against a Fairfax police officer by a citizen is adjudicated in secret. The files and administrative actions are protected from public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, if the complaint is dismissed -- as most are -- the complainers may never know why.
When a serious allegation is made against a Fairfax police officer, it falls to the department's three-member internal affairs section to investigate the accusations. Minor complaints are handled by the individual station commander. If an officer disagrees with any disciplinary action recommended by internal affairs, he or she can appeal to a three-member police hearing panel. This usually happens in about six cases a year. The officer accused picks one member, the police chief selects one and the two board members pick a third. The final decision on disciplinary action is the chief's.
"The citizen is not under the gun, the officer is," says Capt. Eugene King, commander of internal affairs. "When an officer is accused, he doesn't have anything to fall back on. He is compelled to answer all questions completely and truthfully, and if he refuses, then he will be cited for insubordination."
The secrecy surrounding Fairfax County's internal affairs and police hearing board proceedings displeases almost as many officers as citizens. The police say it can be very frustrating to keep silent in the face of public allegations of misconduct, but the department traditionally insists they make no comment about matters that might land the county in court.
"There are so many times I have wanted to lay out the evidence to complainants," says Col. Richard A. King, the county's police chief since 1975 and the longest tenured chief in the Washington area. "I felt it would have stopped action if I could have told of the individual witnesses and testimony and let the complainant or the complainant's attorney look at the file."
In Prince George's County and the District, however, trial board proceedings have been open by law for years without any problems, according to spokesmen in those jurisdictions.
King, 50, a Michigan native, is a businesslike "Col. King" to his subordinates but "Dick" in the offices of the county's highest officials. He is rumored to be in line for appointment as a deputy county executive in charge of police and fire departments and is credited with heading off a move two years ago to set up tougher police review procedures and put citizens on a panel that would investigate more serious allegations. Instead of that action, King created citizen advisory commissions in each of the county's seven lpolice districts.
"called "astute, shrewd and quietly effective" by one county official, King says his department does a good job of policing itself and should be allowed to weed out its own problem officers. He notes that the civil rights division of the Justice Department has completed investigations in seven cases handled by his police since 1978 and found no grounds for prosecution.
"We have something close to one-half million contracts with the public in the course of a year," says King, who notes that his files are full of letters from the public commending his officers. "We can't always be right, but in those cases where it's brought to our attention and found to be wrong, we take appropriate action."
Proof of the force's professionalism, King says, is that only one citizen has ever been able to win damages from the county over the way the police acted. That complainant, Jonathan Walker of Reston, was awarded $4,500 after a federal jury decided last October that two county officers had used excessive force in arresting him for speeding and failure to stop when the police turned on their siren. Walker, who told the court he didn't hear the siren above his car stereo, said he was pulled from his car, dragged by his hair, handcuffed and then pushed head first into the fender of his vehicle.
King and other police and government officials say having citizens on any review panel would have a chilling effect on the ability of police officers to do their job. But some county officials think the force could stand more public scrutiny.
"I don't believe the police are sacrosanct, and I get suspicious when there is this much adamancy [against putting a citizen on the police review board]," says Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth of the Mt. Vernon area. "What are they so afraid of?"
Duckworth says increasing citizen participation in the police reviw process would "at least make the public feel better." But Fairfax attorney Ian Rodway, who has represented officers at trial board hearings for five years, says he is "dead set against" the idea.
"I view the police as a paramilitary organization," says Rodway, who priases the way the police, in his words, "go after the truth."
"Becaruse the rules that apply to police are different from the rules for a citizen, it would be very awkward for a citizen to be involved. It's not a trial, it's a hearing."
Most Fairfax officers, for that matter, also are leery of having any citizens on the review board, and argue they should be judged by their police peers who understand the pressures of the job.
But William Schmidt, the attorney for the Rickman family, says he was not very impressed with the fairness of the police who looked into his client's case. "It's just not a good idea to have the police police themselves when it's the citizens they serve who have a legitimate interest in how the department operates."
Two officers, cleared by internal affairs of brutality allegations stemming from a widely publicized melee at a Rte. 1 night club, say they discovered their brother officers could be very tough in-house investigators. Now assigned to the West Springfield station, William Petracca, 30, and Ernest Jones, 35, were working the Groveton beat in 1978 when they were summoned by a nightclub owner to remove a disorderly patron.
Lnumerous witnesses later complained that the officers had beaten the patron on the legs and head, and one written account said the two men "countinued to beat him while dragging him outside even though all resistance had stopped completely."
Jones and Petracca say most of the customers in the club that night had previous arrest records and got together to blow the incident out of proportion. The "honest account" of two witnesses, who wished to remain anonymous, Petracca said, eventually cleared them but not before a three-to-four-month investigation and FBI scrutiny.
"I left the nightclub that night with three darts in my back, but you didn't read about that," said Petracca.