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Fairfax County police chief to step down in February

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. at a 2017 news conference.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. at a 2017 news conference. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)
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Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. plans to step down in February, capping a nearly eight-year stint that brought major reforms to Virginia’s largest police department during an era of change in policing.

Department officials said Roessler had been planning the move for over a year, but it comes amid criticism over his leadership and complaints that morale is low among rank-and-file officers. All four of the department’s unions issued no-confidence votes in Roessler over the summer and called for his resignation.

It also comes at a turbulent moment for law enforcement, when a number of the police chiefs of the nation’s largest forces have resigned, retired or been fired amid a national reckoning over the policing of minority communities.

The Fairfax County Police Department, which has roughly 1,400 officers, is among the 40 biggest in the nation.

Fairfax County police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the criticism of Roessler was not a factor in his decision to resign. Guglielmi said Roessler was not available for interviews Thursday but would comment closer to his departure.

“It was the eight-year mark and the department is in a good position to pass the baton to the next generation,” Guglielmi said.

Roessler, 57, is a New York native who spent more than 30 years with the department serving in a variety of leadership roles from internal affairs to the patrol division and human resources.

The most pivotal moment of his tenure came shortly after his elevation to chief, when a Fairfax County police officer shot and killed an unarmed Springfield man who had his hands raised during a 2013 standoff at his home.

The slow pace of the investigation and the lack of public information about the shooting of John Geer sparked widespread criticism of the department and prompted the county to launch an overhaul of department policies. The officer who shot Geer eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to a year in jail.

Roessler played a key role in implementing nearly 200 reform efforts, which included establishing a citizen review panel, outfitting officers with body-worn cameras, diverting more people who are mentally ill from jail and giving officers fresh training in de-escalation tactics.

Roessler also made officers’ wellness a priority, establishing help for suicidal officers and a K-9 therapy program. In addition, he created a cyber-forensics bureau to harvest evidence from emerging technologies. And he set up a committee to try to improve the department’s relationship with minority communities, but he was less successful at a related goal: diversifying the force.

Jeffrey C. McKay, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, applauded Roessler’s service.

In a statement, McKay (D-At Large) said Roessler’s efforts had “made us the safest jurisdiction of our size in the nation. The Chief has worked with the Board on reforms that have solidified the Fairfax County Police Department as a leader in transparency and community trust.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, credited Roessler with being ahead of the curve on police reform and making some tough, high-profile decisions.

“Fairfax has gone through enormous changes in some ways that are reflective of what is going on nationally, but much of that change was pre-George Floyd going back to Ferguson,” Wexler said, referencing the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

“Roessler was the right guy for Fairfax because he’s exercised enormous leadership and taken hits for it both internally and in the community,” Wexler said. “Fairfax County will be a better place for what Ed Roessler has done.”

U.S. Park Police officers charged in shooting of Bijan Ghaisar

Wexler pointed to Roessler’s decision to publicly release dash-cam video from the department that showed the fatal 2017 shooting of Bijan Ghaisar by the U.S. Park Police after the unarmed Fairfax County man drove away from the scene of a fender bender. Fairfax County police were following the two U.S. Park Police officers involved. Wexler said releasing the dash-cam video changed the complexion of the case. The Park Police officers involved have since been charged with manslaughter.

Wexler also said it was a difficult call to quickly seek charges against a White Fairfax County police officer who Tasered a Black man who was disoriented and did not appear to be a threat during a call in the Mount Vernon area in June. That case is ongoing.

Fairfax County police officer charged after Tasering Black man

But the rapid decision angered some officers and union officials who said that a more thorough investigation should have been done and that the use-of-force was not improper. It was one of a number of issues officers had with Roessler and other police officials.

Some were angry the command staff had received raises in recent years, while officers had not. Others complained that they had curtailed traffic stops and other proactive enforcement because they worried about internal reprimands. Some argued that the department had made officers look racist through what they say was a misleading presentation of use-of-force data against Black people.

“The men and women of the Fairfax County Police Department see this as an opportunity to make change and once again have the reputation that we once had as one of the best police departments in the country,” said Brad Carruthers, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77.

County Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) said the department was in crisis in a recent newsletter. He said he was concerned that the issues were having an impact on the force’s ability to fight crime.

“The hard work is really ahead for us is finding the right leader in this climate, finding the balance between the community and keeping Fairfax County the safest jurisdiction of its size,” Herrity said.

Guglielmi said it’s not clear what Roessler will do next, but Fairfax County will conduct a national search for his replacement. Fairfax County joins a growing list of local jurisdictions that are seeking a top leader for their police departments. Others include Prince William, Arlington, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.

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