“It’s unprecedented for the profession to all at once create this kind of change,” Roessler said.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors named Roessler’s predecessor, David Rohrer, as interim chief of the department this week, as the board conducts a national search for a permanent replacement.
The board is expected to interview applicants through February and make a final decision in March or early April. The board will consider internal and external candidates, but Fairfax County will be competing with a number of other departments locally and nationally amid a wave of vacancies in police leadership at a difficult moment.
Supervisor Pat Herrity, a Republican who has been a vocal advocate for officers, said recruiting a leader will be a challenge but hopes the new chief will focus on public safety basics while addressing anxiety and attrition in a department that has long been considered one of the best in the country.
“I want to see the chief understands the priority, and the priority is public safety and keeping us the safest jurisdiction of our size in the country,” Herrity said. “I want one who can rebuild morale in the department and bring back the sense of pride in being a Fairfax County police officer. Fairfax County has been a national model.”
Roessler, 56, built a reputation as a reformer, helping lead ambitious overhauls amid widespread criticism of how the department handled an officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed Springfield man in 2013. The changes included the creation of a police oversight board, new training in de-escalation tactics for officers and the introduction of body-worn cameras.
That record earned Roessler praise among Democrats on the Board of Supervisors.
“He has dedicated his career to protecting our County and building trust between the Police Department and the community,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large) said in a statement. “This takes time and reform and Chief Roessler has been on the forefront of this.”
In the same vein, Supervisor Rodney Lusk (D-Lee) added his admiration of the chief during the tense protests that followed the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May. He wants a police chief who can balance reform and public safety.
“He basically made it clear that we would not have our officers at those events in riot gear,” Lusk said of the Floyd protests.
But those moves were not always popular with Roessler’s own officers, some of whom said there also was a disconnect between beat officers and the top brass on a range of issues including discipline, stagnant pay, communications and promotions.
One even took the unusual step of posting a farewell message to the department on YouTube over the summer. Lt. James Bacon retired after 35 years on the force, saying he was fed up.
“In all those years, I have never seen morale so bad or leadership so poor as we have right now, and something has got to be done to change it,” Bacon said in the video.
One tipping point came in June when a White officer was charged with a misdemeanor for using a stun gun on a disoriented and unarmed Black man without apparent provocation.
Roessler criticized Officer Tyler Timberlake’s actions in a news conference as he announced the charge the day after the incident, which some officers saw as a rush to judgment. Some also thought the use of force was justified, and the department’s officer associations called on Roessler to resign. The officer’s case is pending.
Virginia Police Benevolent Association President Joseph Woloszyn said such moves have pushed some officers to curtail enforcement and sent others looking for jobs elsewhere, including in the county’s fire department and in neighboring jurisdictions.
“Officers are afraid commanders are going to go after them. They are afraid politicians are going to go after them,” Woloszyn said. “You are not seeing proactive policing right now.”
The turbulence is not uncommon in police departments across the country after a summer of racial justice protests. A number of police chiefs have resigned, retired or been fired amid controversy over the handling of various episodes.
Roessler joined the department in 1989, moving up through the ranks and was appointed chief in 2013. The department has roughly 1,400 officers, making it among the 40 largest in the nation.
Roessler was emphatic when asked whether the no-confidence votes by police associations had any role in his decision to retire. “Absolutely not,” he said, adding that he had planned for some time to step down.
Roessler said he plans to focus on deepening his religious faith in retirement. He worships at Chantilly’s Grace Covenant Church, where he helped stop a knife attack in July.
“I’m extremely blessed to work for a great county and to be able to be in a position just to focus on growing myself next without reservation,” Roessler said of his retirement.