Fairfax County’s chief prosecutor called for the Virginia State Police to investigate a Fairfax police shooting outside a church in September because he had lost confidence in the county police department’s ability to cooperate fully with him, newly released e-mails show.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh took the extraordinary step of requesting an outside agency after he had been stonewalled by Fairfax police in the August 2013 police shooting of John B. Geer in Springfield, the e-mails indicate. Morrogh had sought the internal affairs records of the officer involved in the Geer case, but Chief Edwin C. Roessler, on the advice of the county attorney, refused to turn over the files, the e-mails show.
Morrogh also was disturbed that the Fairfax county attorney had advised the police internal affairs bureau “to avoid taking statements from officers accused of employing excessive force,” to eliminate the possibility of an inconsistent statement being used “later in civil proceedings,” according to the e-mails, released by Morrogh.
The e-mails underscore the rare dissension and tension within the Fairfax County government that have been a part of the Geer case. Geer was unarmed and witnesses say had his hands up when he was killed by Officer Adam D. Torres. Fairfax officials had been silent for more than a year about what happened and did not release details until ordered to by a judge in a civil case filed by Geer’s family.
Morrogh turned the investigation into the shooting over to the U.S. Justice Department because of the county’s obstruction, he has said. The newly released e-mails show that the tension was sharper than previously known.
Morrogh tried to set up a meeting with County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) to let her know about the advice to the internal affairs bureau from County Attorney David P. Bobzien and his top deputies, Karen L. Gibbons and Cynthia L. Tianti. But Bulova never was informed of Morrogh’s request, and the meeting never happened, the chairman said.
Morrogh also expressed interest in speaking to the full County Board of Supervisors about the difficulties he was having investigating police cases, the e-mails show. But Tianti advised him that he could only do so at a public meeting, perhaps during the “Public Comments” portion of a board meeting, where he would be limited to five minutes.
Bulova said she has since “told Bobzien that the Board should have known of his request.”
Eventually, Morrogh said the police internal affairs commander, Maj. Michael Kline, refused to heed the county attorney’s advice, and the county attorney and police agreed to allow the prosecutor to review internal affairs files, starting with the September church shooting. The state police declined to get involved in the investigation, a county spokesman said.
Fairfax spokesman Tony Castrilli said in a statement that internal police investigations of excessive force “always include interviews of the subject officers,” but he declined to say whether county attorneys ever advised police to stop such interviews. He said Morrogh and the county attorneys met Sept. 15 and “developed a protocol for handling requests” for internal affairs files “that satisfied both sides’ legal obligations.”
But the county attorneys continued to resist turning over internal affairs files in the Geer case. An e-mail written by Gibbons in January 2014 explained the county’s reasoning: that “internal investigations are confidential” under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
The state law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold “administrative investigations relating to allegations of wrongdoing by employees of a law-enforcement agency.” But it also states that such records “may be disclosed by the custodian, in his discretion.”
Gibbons wrote: “Chief Roessler will not voluntarily provide you with the internal affairs files regarding the officer who shot and killed Mr. Geer.”
At the time, Morrogh was seeking records on other internal affairs cases involving Torres, not on the Geer case, to get a full picture of the officer and his background. “It wouldn’t be fair to the officer,” Morrogh said in a brief interview, “to the decedent, or be true to my investigation to not look at all the evidence before making a decision” on filing charges.
After receiving Gibbons’s e-mail in January 2014 and believing that even a state grand jury subpoena could not extract the internal files from the police, Morrogh turned the case over to the U.S. attorney in Alexandria. Federal prosecutors apparently obtained the files, but no decision has been made on whether Torres should be charged with a civil rights violation.
Earlier this month, a Fairfax judge ordered the internal affairs files be provided to the attorneys for Geer’s family, who sued Roessler in September. The files were then given to Morrogh last week, and he said prosecutors were screening them.
Morrogh said in an e-mail to Tianti that he had received internal affairs files before the Geer case, but in light of the new policy denying them, he had summoned the state police to the church shooting. “My concern is that this office can’t investigate a case fully and fairly where the police, or the county attorney, decide what information they will turn over to the prosecution,” Morrogh wrote.
The county attorney’s office did not tell Bulova or the supervisors of Morrogh’s interest in speaking to them. “It’s completely unacceptable,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield).