Fairfax County police have made significant progress on a slate of changes including use of force, diversity and oversight that were spurred by an officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed man in 2013, according to a new report.
The county department has implemented or is in the process of implementing nearly 90 percent of the approximately 200 recommendations put forth by an independent commission created in the wake of the killing of John Geer, according to the review by members of the commission released late Wednesday.
The progress report comes shortly after the five-year anniversary of Geer’s death. The killing and the department’s handling of the case drew criticism from Geer’s family and the public. It eventually resulted in a manslaughter conviction for former officer Adam Torres.
Among other changes, the commission members credited the police and other Fairfax County authorities for diverting the mentally ill from jail, establishing a policy to defuse tense encounters between officers and the public, creating an independent auditor to review police investigations of deaths or serious injuries, setting up a media relations bureau led by a civilian and revising the policy on police chases.
“Police departments are not known for embracing change,” commission member Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner said in a statement, “but we’ve seen Fairfax County and its police department achieve substantial and meaningful reform. Still, we believe more is possible to further build and maintain community trust.”
The commission members said the recommendations that are approved in concept but still need to be fulfilled include equipping each officer with a stun gun and fully rolling out a body-worn-camera program for officers.
The report said the department declined to implement about 20 recommendations, most of which had to do with information-sharing and transparency, two of the biggest criticisms of the department as it investigated Geer’s shooting.
Don Geer, John Geer’s father, said he felt his son’s death had not been “wasted.”
“It does look like they are attempting to make changes, and progress is being made,” he said.
As an example, he pointed to the decision by Fairfax County police to release dash-cam video of the U.S. Park Police fatal shooting of an unarmed driver, Bijan Ghaisar, in the county last year. Fairfax County police were assisting in the pursuit of Ghaisar, and a cruiser’s camera captured the event as it unfolded. The FBI is investigating Ghaisar’s death, and no decision has been made on charges.
Geer was shot by Torres in August 2013 after a more than 40-minute standoff with officers at Geer’s Springfield home. The officers were summoned by Geer’s partner after she said they argued and he threw her possessions outside the house.
At the time of the shooting, Geer was standing in the front doorway of his home with his hands resting on top of a storm door. He was unarmed, but a holstered gun was a short distance from him inside the home.
The investigation of the case stretched on for a year, as police refused to release details of the shooting or the name of the officer involved. Details eventually came out after Geer’s family filed a civil suit, which was settled for nearly $3 million.
The criticism that followed the case prompted the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to create the commission to recommend changes to the department’s policies to improve public trust, which was damaged by the case.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. said he was mostly satisfied with the latest report.
“Our men and women put their lives on the line every day in the community,” Roessler said. “Our actions are subject to scrutiny, as they rightly should be. We need to take a leadership role in informing the community about what’s going on.”