A panel examining the practices of the Fairfax County Police Department following the shooting of an unarmed Springfield man has recommended broad changes, including greater transparency, more measured use-of-force policies and a civilian review panel.
The recommendations are contained in the 197-page final report of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which has spent the past six months looking at how the department deploys force, trains its officers and communicates with the public.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the 70-member commission in March after the controversial slaying of John Geer in 2013 by a Fairfax County officer, who was responding to a domestic disturbance at Geer’s Springfield home.
The case caused an outcry because Geer was unarmed and the investigation into his death stretched on for more than a year before the department released detailed information about the shooting and identified the officer involved. Geer’s family went to court to break the logjam, and the officer was indicted on a murder charge and is awaiting trial.
Michael Hershman, the Ad Hoc commission chairman, said all of the recommendations were approved unanimously by the panel, which was comprised of police, politicians, family members of victims of police shootings, and academics.
“What impressed me most about the operations, about the commission, was the hard work and the inclusiveness of the people involved — not only the commissioners, but also the citizens who joined in the effort at the subcommittee level,” Hershman said. “Just six months ago, there were those who would have wagered that there was no way under the sun that we would reach unanimity in our findings.”
The panel may be fully behind the recommendations, but the ideas must be taken up by the Board of Supervisors beginning Oct. 20. Some may prove politically unpalatable to county leaders and rank-and-file officers.
The recommendations that probably will produce the most friction are to create an independent police auditor to ensure that internal investigations of police use-of-force cases are impartial, and a citizens review panel to field complaints from the public about abuse of authority or serious misconduct by police.
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. called the recommendations “well-done community input” and said the department had begun implementing some ideas that tracked with changes it was undertaking.
Roessler said he supported the idea of creating an auditor, but said he was withholding judgment on a citizens review panel. Roessler said he wanted to see how the idea would be fleshed out before making up his mind.
Others were less equivocal.
Fairfax Police Benevolent Association President Joseph Woloszyn said the idea was unworkable in its current form. The panel would consist of seven citizens chosen for their backgrounds, which could include law enforcement experience, diversity and community standing.
“They want people on there who may have no law enforcement experience,” Woloszyn said. “I can’t be on a panel for engineers or journalists. If you are going to have something like that, you have to have people who have law enforcement background and who understand when the use of force is authorized.”
Fairfax County Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said he supports creating an independent auditor’s position and a citizens complaint panel.
“How that’s structured is, I think, something we probably need to have a conversation about in a way that includes the community, as well as asking the police to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t,” Cook said of the citizens panel.
When it comes to communicating with the public, the commission recommended a policy of “maximum disclosure, minimum delay” for the department. The commission called for sharing the names of officers involved in shootings within a week, unless there are extenuating circumstances, and making available all video of an incident upon a Freedom of Information Act request.
Roessler said he has begun work on another recommendation — hiring a civilian to run the department’s public information office. He said he hoped to have someone hired within the next three months.
Other recommendations included increasing the diversity of the police force, creating teams of specially trained officers to deal with the mentally ill, and creating a special docket within the court system to handle their cases.
The commission also said the department should shift its philosophy on use of force — or, as it said, “maintain an appropriate balance between an officer’s role as a guardian/warrior or peacemaker/fighter” and suggested that all officers wear body cameras. The latter idea was something the department is working toward.
Mike Curtis, the founder of the police watchdog group Northern Virginia Cop Block, applauded most of the commission’s recommendations, but said he was skeptical that the will exists among Fairfax County’s elected leaders and police brass to make the reforms stick.
“The wheels are already turning to keep their feet from being held to the fire,” Curtis said.