After our latest story on the death of John Geer, shot while unarmed by a Fairfax County police officer in August 2013, a number of readers raised parallels with the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and asked where the elected officials of Northern Virginia have been over the last year. The short answer is, they’ve been watching quietly, waiting to see what the justice system will do and been surprised that, in a year, the justice system has done nothing.
For background on the case and the lawsuit filed Tuesday by Geer’s longtime partner, start here. If you know the case, read on.
The politicians have no legal role in the criminal investigative process, and there have been no protests in the Geer case that have required the authorities to respond, which caused a second uproar in Ferguson when police responded with a show of military-style force. In Missouri, the governor then became the focus. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a Fairfax County resident, declined to comment on the Geer case Wednesday, as did U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), the former Fairfax County board chairman, in whose district the shooting occurred.
More locally, Fairfax supervisors have received closed-door updates on the case from Fairfax County Attorney David Bobzien, and Supervisor Pat Herrity (R) said Wednesday he had asked for another one next week. Herrity has been expressing his impatience with the process for months. “We need to take the time to get this right,” Herrity said, “but over a year is way too long. I’m doing everything I can to keep this in front of the board and in front of the authorities until it’s resolved. We can’t go in and say who’s right and who’s wrong. But we want a resolution one way or the other.”
Herrity also said, “There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t hear from somebody about John Geer,” who lived in Herrity’s district. Last week, on the one year anniversary of the Aug. 29, 2013, slaying, several people called him asking what was happening.
Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said, “I think I and my colleagues on the board are as frustrated as the family is that we haven’t gotten information back.” She said she didn’t know why Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh had transferred the case to federal prosecutors in February.
“I feel very sympathetic towards the family,” Bulova said. “I can only imagine how frustrated they are. And I can understand why they would be filing a lawsuit against the county. But there’s just nothing that I can do or the board can do to shed more light on what happened. They’re not sharing with us.”
Morrogh said he understood the family’s frustration, too, but could not comment further. According to two sources close to the case, Morrogh had three problems which led him to shift the case to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria: he wanted to see the officer’s internal affairs files for previous incidents, and the police refused, saying they are separate internal investigations which can’t be used in criminal cases; someone in Morrogh’s office has a direct connection to the officer; and the officer may be on a list maintained by the prosecutors of officers who have been found untruthful in previous testimony.
John Carroll, who is representing the still unnamed officer as the lawyer for the Fairfax police union, declined to comment.
Michael Lieberman, the lawyer for Maura Harrington, who filed the wrongful death suit against the Fairfax police, said he felt Fairfax politicians had a number of options available.”They supervise the police,” Lieberman said, “they can hire and fire. If they don’t like the policies, they should do what’s necessary to change them. They can certainly urge the police department to take a different level of transparency.” Virginia law allows police to withhold investigative information if they wish, and Fairfax police choose to exercise that Freedom of Information loophole almost always.
Lieberman also said the Fairfax board could fund lapel cameras for officers, so that their actions are recorded on video. He cited a case in Campbell County last year, in which the Virginia State Police and the Roanoke County prosecutor were brought in to investigate the police killing of an 83-year-old woman. The shooting was ruled justified, in part because the Altavista officers were wearing lapel cameras which captured the shooting. (The woman had shot at police.)
The Fairfax board could also institute an independent civilian oversight board to review police shootings, Lieberman said, though supervisors firmly oppose that. Nick Beltrante, a former District cop and Alexandria area resident, has been lobbying the supervisors for an independent review board since 2010, when he formed the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. In response to his group’s push, the board authorized an administrative audit of the police Internal Affairs unit, but no outside board to look at the merits of shooting cases.
“This should be a wake-up call for the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and the citizens of Fairfax County,” Beltrante said. “The Geer case is a travesty of justice. Fairfax County police should not be the only deciding entity when a member of the force is charged with misconduct. The blue wall of silence must be torn down.”
Brian Buchner, president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said most major cities have some form of independent police review and that “the numbers of mid-size and smaller cities and towns implementing some form of oversight over their local police department has been steadily increasing in the last 10 to 15 years.”
Buchner said many police shooting cases are completed within a year, even with an additional federal review, but “there are cases that take longer.” Previous high-profile police shootings in Fairfax, including the David Masters case in 2009, the Salvatore Culosi shooting in 2006 and the Prince Jones killing in 2000, all were ruled on by the Fairfax prosecutor within 3 1/2 months.
No Fairfax County officer has ever been charged with a crime in a police shooting in the department’s 74-year history. The Fairfax police have shot and killed six people since 2011. All but Geer’s have been ruled justifiable.
Lieberman also suggested that Morrogh could have called for a special grand jury, with subpoena power and its own form of independence, to investigate the Geer case. A special grand jury was convened in Loudoun County (with a special prosecutor from Arlington) last year to investigate Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio, and Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert also convened a special grand jury last year to investigate murder suspect Joaquin Rams.
But Fairfax prosecutors have never preferred special grand juries, and Morrogh declined to answer a question about whether he could have summoned one for the Geer case.