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Fairfax County approves purchase of 1,210 police body cameras

A body camera worn by a Prince George’s County emergency response officer in 2016. On Tuesday, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of cameras for widespread use in the county police department.
A body camera worn by a Prince George’s County emergency response officer in 2016. On Tuesday, Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of cameras for widespread use in the county police department. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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Fairfax County on Tuesday moved to purchase 1,210 body cameras for its police force, putting into place the last big piece of a series of changes prompted by the 2013 fatal police shooting of an unarmed man outside his home.

“It’s about accountability,” said Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock), who introduced a motion to spend $11 million over the next three years to buy the body cameras, train officers and hire 34 people to handle the new equipment.

The motion was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, ensuring that Fairfax will join the District, Montgomery County and other major local jurisdictions whose officers commonly wear cameras to increase transparency and accountability as they work.

As chair of the board’s public safety committee, Cook oversaw Fairfax’s response to public outrage over the death of John B. Geer, who was shot at his doorstep in Springfield by a county police officer responding to a call about a domestic dispute.

Adam D. Torres, who was eventually fired from the force, pleaded guilty in 2016 to involuntary manslaughter.

The shooting exposed a sense of distrust that some residents in Fairfax have toward county police, which spread to the county leadership after revelations that county attorneys counseled the police department to withhold Torres’s internal affairs files from the office of the commonwealth’s attorney investigating the shooting.

John Geer had hands up when shot by police, four officers say in documents

In hopes of soothing tensions, Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At Large) appointed an advisory task force to recommend ways to improve law enforcement in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction.

The group made about 200 recommendations — estimated to cost $34 million if all are implemented — leading to the creation in 2016 of a nine-member civilian review board tasked with scrutinizing police department investigations into allegations of abuse or misconduct. That same year, the county board also approved the hiring of an independent auditor whose job is to monitor use-of-force investigations.

Before approving a pilot program for body cameras in some precincts in 2017, some county supervisors were worried about the possibility of violating the privacy of innocent bystanders if the footage was publicly released.

The police department allayed those concerns by putting in place procedures that mandate informing people they are being recorded, turning off the camera if asked to do so in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy and prohibiting recording private conversations.

Additionally, the extra people hired with the funds approved Tuesday will include personnel to screen footage for possible privacy concerns before it is released, county officials said.

On Tuesday, some supervisors were mainly worried about the costs of implementing the program as Fairfax continues to work its way out of an economic slump that made it harder to fund the police department and other services.

“This program is going to set our public safety budget back millions of dollars and we should consider whether it should be prioritized over other pressing public safety concerns,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who nonetheless supported the measure.

Several supervisors said their concerns were outweighed by the benefit of increased transparency in how Fairfax police officers do their work. They added that the body cameras also help the police officers against false accusations of wrongdoing.

“So often, an incident is captured by someone using an iPhone or using some kind of video equipment,” Bulova said. “It’s all the more critical that we have our own internal evidence about what happened.”

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