Fairfax County supervisors voted Tuesday to approve changes in how police are trained and how they respond to volatile situations, with lawmakers deeply divided over how soon officers in Virginia’s largest jurisdiction should be required to wear body cameras.
In two separate votes, the board agreed to recommendations from a police advisory commission formed last year after the fatal police shooting of unarmed Springfield resident John Geer.
Many of the changes — including requiring police cadets to undergo training in de-escalating hostile situations before learning to fire their weapons — are already underway.
But county supervisors argued over other aspects of how county police use force and share information about investigations with the public.
The commission’s recommendation calls for Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. to spend 18 months researching privacy concerns surrounding police body cameras — a period that Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) deemed too long.
“We’ve spent two and a half years studying this issue,” Foust said, noting that police departments around the country have turned to body cameras as a way to deter officers from using unnecessary force and to protect them against false claims of brutality. Addressing Roessler, Foust said: “How much more time do you need?”
Roessler said his department is ready to start using cameras, but other supervisors said it would be rash to do so before county attorneys work through concerns over how long camera footage should be kept and what should be available to the public.
“The body-worn cameras are more complicated than people realize,” said Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), the board chairman. “How do you block out innocent bystanders who are captured in a film? In a small jurisdiction, that might be easy. But in a large jurisdiction with the volume of data that our police department would be collecting, that is significant.”
D.C. police began testing body cameras in the fall of 2014, and all officers in the city are slated to be wearing them this summer. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was initially against publicly releasing camera footage, but under pressure from the D.C. Council, she agreed to a compromise measure that made footage recorded in public spaces available to those filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
Footage recorded in private homes, or in which domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking is shown, is exempt from public-records requests. In addition, the subjects of videos can review the recordings at police stations.
The Fairfax supervisors voted on the body-camera issue as part of a package of “use-of-force” recommendations; the package, including the 18-month review period for the use of cameras, was approved unanimously.
In a separate vote, the board backed by 8 to 2 an array of changes intended to demonstrate a new commitment by the county government and police department to sharing information with the public about police-involved incidents.
Among the more-controversial measures is a requirement that the police chief release within 10 days the name of an officer whose use of force leads to someone’s death or critical injury — unless the chief determines that doing so would pose a significant risk.
The county refused for more than a year to share information about Adam D. Torres, the county police officer who shot Geer. Torres, who eventually was fired, has pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and will be sentenced this month.
Supervisors Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) and Kathy L. Smith (D-Sully) voted against releasing officers’ names within 10 days of any incident, arguing that doing so could expose county police or their families to harm, especially if their names are posted online.
“There are a lot of crazy people out there,” said Herrity, listing several recent incidents in which county police officers were threatened with violence.
Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) argued that the county must share information about a criminal investigation as soon as possible.
Bulova said more transparency might have helped the county avoid the public backlash generated in the Geer case.
“There was so much information that we just should have provided,” Bulova said. “There was really no good reason why we shouldn’t have provided the officer’s name. There was no reason why we shouldn’t have provided some of the other information that we were warned to hold on to.”
Tuesday’s votes left police advocates as well as critics less than satisfied.
Addressing a requirement that officers carry stun guns, Siobhan Chase, secretary of the Fairfax County chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, said this could increase the burden of the roughly 30 pounds of gear they already must wear.
Cayce Utley, a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Northern Virginia, called the reforms “toothless.”
Sal Culosi Sr., whose unarmed son Sal Culosi Jr. was killed by a Fairfax County SWAT team in 2006, called the changes “modest” and “incremental” but still a step forward.
Culosi, who was a member of the police advisory commission’s use-of-force committee, said the decision to wait until a situation escalates before deploying a SWAT team “ensures the kind of practices and procedures that killed my son would no longer be used.”
“Some change is better than no change,” Culosi said. “If you try to do too much, you may come away with nothing.”