Fairfax County officials say they are troubled by a lengthy delay in releasing information to the public about the fatal shooting of an unarmed Springfield man by a county police officer, and they are taking steps that they hope will help restore their constituents’ trust.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she plans to meet with Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) on Thursday to discuss how the county could better handle information related to police shootings. The county also wants to hire a consultant to recommend policy changes, officials said.
The county posted more than 11,000 pages of details on its Web site Friday evening about the Aug. 29, 2013 shooting of John B. Geer, who according to four police officers and other witnesses at the scene had his hands up near his head when Officer Adam D. Torres fired one shot into his chest during a standoff at Geer’s home.
The information had been kept secret for 17 months, after the office of Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh (D) decided it couldn’t effectively investigate the shooting and put the case in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department.
Federal prosecutors have yet to announce whether they will pursue criminal charges in the case, and they have repeatedly declined to answer questions about it from reporters.
At a time when police shootings have sparked unrest in other parts of the country, the timetable has raised concerns among some officials and residents in an area of Northern Virginia where police-community relations are normally strong.
“This kind of situation is unprecedented in Fairfax County,” said Bulova, who along with her colleagues has received angry e-mails and phone calls from constituents about the case. “We had not had a situation that has taken this amount of time, and it’s been frustrating.”
After Geer was killed, the Board of Supervisors debated behind closed doors over how to handle information related to the incident, which began with a 911 call about a domestic dispute. Most supervisors agreed that releasing any details could jeopardize a pending criminal investigation. But some pushed for immediate disclosure, arguing that the public has a right to know the available facts about a police shooting right away, even if there are discrepancies in the details.
“Transparency and trust go hand-in-hand,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), whose district includes the neighborhood where Geer lived and died. “If you can’t share with your citizens what you know, how are they going to trust you?”
Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows ruled in December that county officials had to turn over the details of the police investigation to Geer’s family, as part of the pretrial discovery in a civil lawsuit that the family had filed. The documents revealed significant doubts about the shooting expressed by other police officers who were there.
Geer’s family asked that the documents not be publicly released until some potentially embarrassing information not related to the case could be redacted, Bulova said.
The Board of Supervisors agreed to wait until Tuesday, Bulova said, before deciding how much to release. But, she added, the plan was scuttled when The Washington Post informed the county Friday that the newspaper was preparing to publish an article over the weekend that included most of the details.
The decision to post the documents online Friday night left local media outlets scrambling to digest the information and prompted some accusations from the public that county officials were attempting to avoid public scrutiny.
Several county supervisors expressed frustration with how the process has unfolded, saying they never expected to wait this many months to share information publicly.
Now, the road to restoring public confidence will be a long one, Herrity said. “We’re trying to make up for a lot of lost time and a lot of lost trust,” he said.
Some details of the case are still unknown, including the contents of a police internal affairs report about Torres, who allegedly had an argument with a county prosecutor weeks before the Geer shooting that may have played a role in the decision to transfer the case to the Justice Department.
“I’m as frustrated as can be with the Department of Justice and frustrated as can be with the people who have been pointing a finger at us,” said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). “Yeah, it’s been incredibly frustrating, and then people continue to come back and keep banging on us.”