Members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors plan to order their longtime county attorney to answer for what they see as his missteps in the handling of the investigation into the 2013 police shooting of an unarmed man.
Several supervisors said they plan to take up the shooting death of John Geer at their next meeting on Tuesday. They said they may talk about the possibility of reprimands, and possibly even termination, for the county attorney or his top deputies.
“Everything is on the table,” Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said. “There has to be action, both swift and long-term. There have to be consequences for actions like this. There have to be consequences so people understand who is running this county. It’s not the people who were hired to work for the county. It’s the people who were elected.”
The supervisors said their legal advisers, led by longtime County Attorney David P. Bobzien, failed to keep them apprised of a dispute between police and county prosecutor Raymond F. Morrogh in 2013 as he investigated the shooting, didn’t tell them the county was refusing to provide files to federal prosecutors in 2014, and didn’t tell them that Morrogh wanted to meet with the supervisors to discuss the advice Bobzien’s staff was giving police.
The supervisors said they learned of the developments from a series of e-mails from 2013 and 2014 that were published Friday in The Washington Post. In the e-mails, between Morrogh and deputy county attorneys Karen L. Gibbons and Cynthia Tianti, Morrogh expressed frustration with the county’s decision not to let him see internal affairs files and with what he said was the attorneys’ advice to police internal affairs investigators that they should not interview officers involved in brutality allegations.
The e-mails also show that Morrogh tried unsuccessfully to discuss his concerns with the board chairman, Sharon Bulova (D), and the other supervisors.
“It’s clear we can redraw the organizational chart” of Fairfax government, Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said Friday, “and put the county attorney at the top. They appear to be making decisions without consulting the board. This is another indication it’s time for change in the county attorney’s office.”
Also Friday, details began to emerge about what the supervisors were and weren’t told about the death of Geer by their attorneys and by Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. and what they have since learned from legal filings and news reports.
Morrogh’s e-mails said the county attorneys instructed the police internal affairs bureau not to interview officers involved in shootings because of the possibility that statements would conflict with ones given in future civil cases. In a statement issued Friday, county spokesman Tony Castrilli said that is not the case. “It is not correct to suggest that [internal affairs] was advised to avoid taking statements from officers,” the statement said.
Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) said it would be “highly inappropriate” to give such instructions to officers. “We’ll follow up and get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Foust said he and other board members have felt blindsided by learning new information about investigation of the Geer case through media reports and not Bobzien’s office.
Neither Bobzien nor Tianti, who is overseeing the Geer case, responded to a request for comment.
Although Bobzien, who has been with the county for 20 years, is generally well regarded, several board members said the Geer matter exposed a serious communication gap between his office and the county’s governing body. Bulova said she and other board members are taking steps to bridge that gap, including the creation of a commission to review police policies.
Bulova said “I don’t know” whether anyone in the county attorney’s office should be dismissed. But she and other board members said that if a meeting with Morrogh had occurred, they would likely have chosen to cooperate fully with his office.
Geer, 46, was fatally shot Aug. 29, 2013, as he stood in the doorway of his Springfield townhouse with his hands on top of the screen door, police witnesses said. The police waited 70 minutes to render aid to Geer, who had already shown them a holstered handgun, because they didn’t know whether he would try to fire back at them.
The supervisors received their first briefing on the case on Sept. 10, 2013, in a closed briefing from Roessler, board records show. Herrity said the chief told them there were differing accounts of where Geer’s hands were and that there was a delay in reaching Geer. The board did not receive any details about how many officers contradicted the version of events given by Officer Adam D. Torres, who shot Geer, or about Torres’s prior blowup at a Fairfax prosecutor, though that was well known to top police officials, police documents released last month show.
The board was briefed again in closed session on Nov. 19, 2013, records show. According to Herrity, members were informed that Morrogh was seeking the internal affairs files of Torres in other cases and that the county attorneys were refusing to provide them.
Morrogh’s e-mails show that the county attorneys and Roessler had already refused to turn over the files in a meeting five days earlier, on Nov. 14, 2013.
Herrity said the board is made up mainly of non-lawyers and that when county attorneys provide advice, “absent something compelling to dispute it, the board tends to follow it. But an attorney’s job is to give you the pros and cons and lay out options. Not to make decisions. The board should be the one making the decisions. That clearly didn’t happen.”
The board received another briefing in April and another on Sept. 9, shortly after Geer’s longtime girlfriend sued Roessler. In the meantime, county attorneys again refused to produce Torres’s internal affairs files for federal prosecutors, the Justice Department revealed in a letter in November. That was the first time the supervisors learned that, Herrity said.
“The board was very upset,” Herrity said, “at the fact that they hadn’t turned the files over to the feds. We weren’t told any of that.”
Also in September, another police shooting occurred, and Morrogh said he wasn’t told of it for hours. Morrogh asked Virginia State Police to take over the new investigation, but they declined, county officials said.
Morrogh then sought a meeting with Bulova and the board to discuss the county attorney’s seemingly new policies on internal affairs files and interviews. But the prosecutor’s request was never passed on to Bulova or the supervisors, Bulova said, and the meeting didn’t happen.
“If a fellow elected official wants to meet with me, we’re meeting. It’s not even a debate,” McKay said.
With no decision made on whether to charge Torres, police had refused to release his name or any details of the case until January, when a Fairfax judge ordered them to do so in the civil suit. On Jan. 30, the county posted 11,000 documents, photos, audio and video files of the case online, which Herrity said was the first time the supervisors learned the details of the shooting.
Herrity said he was willing to listen to Bobzien and his staff defend their work. “I’m still trying to decide whether we got overprotective legal advice or just bad legal advice,” Herrity said.