Virginia’s largest jurisdiction has moved closer to creating a civilian review panel for cases of alleged police abuse, part of an ongoing series of police reforms in Fairfax County being launched at a time when such cases have stirred concerns nationwide.
During a committee meeting Tuesday, the county’s Board of Supervisors hashed out details for what would be an independent body that would scrutinize cases involving police abuse or misconduct, joining the District and a handful of major cities across the country that have added civilian oversight of police.
The effort in Fairfax is part of about $35 million in proposed changes that officials are considering in response to a community backlash over how the county handled the investigation into the 2013 fatal shooting of John B. Geer, who was unarmed when he was gunned down by a county police officer outside his home.
Last month, the board also moved to hire an independent police auditor who will review investigations into cases where force is used by a police officer to apprehend a suspect.
Board chair Sharon Bulova (D) said both reforms will help restore trust in the county’s department of about 1,700 sworn officers.
“An independent panel will be extremely helpful in providing people with an independent portal through which they’re able to bring their grievances and issues,” said Bulova, who appointed a police advisory commission last year that recommended 202 total reforms. “I think that would be good for Fairfax County.”
A civilian review panel would consist of nine members, who would examine police department investigations into claims of abuse or misconduct — including harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination and recklessly endangering a person in custody.
The panel would be able to hold public meetings during its review and compel county police officials and members of the Internal Affairs Bureau to explain their findings during those sessions.
Amid a rash of police shootings that have generated protests across the country, Fairfax has tried to walk a fine line in implementing its own forms of police accountability.
That was apparent Tuesday, when county supervisors wrestled with how to implement a new form of oversight that rank-and-file police officers have largely opposed, arguing that a civilian review panel would be biased against them.
Board members debated whether the new panel should have investigative authority, such as taking in testimony from the person who alleged police abuse or misconduct.
Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s public safety committee, argued against it, saying that it would be unfair to the accused police officer — who is protected under state law from having to testify outside the Internal Affairs Bureau process in cases involving allegations of misconduct.
“You can’t have a hearing or a meeting where one side gets to give additional evidence and the other side doesn’t,” said Cook, who along with several other supervisors pushed for the panel to be restricted to reviewing investigative case files.
Given that the panel would have access to those files, the board also deliberated over whether panel members should undergo criminal background checks before they are appointed to two-year terms.
That question remained unresolved after several supervisors argued against excluding people with past felony convictions from participating in a process that is designed to give a voice to everyone in the community.
“The statement that we want is that this body will be independent and fair,” said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). “That’s the underlying basis of it.”
County police officers at the meeting were visibly frustrated by the likely creation of the panel, which they consider unnecessary oversight on top of internal controls designed to root out misconduct.
“Most police officers do feel that this is being rammed down their throats,” Officer Rich Barron, lodge secretary of the county’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the board. “There are a host of citizens who aren’t going to satisfied by any investigation that’s conducted until they are able to see an entire case file, including information that shouldn’t be public.”
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said the panel is necessary to move Fairfax past the frustrations brought by the Geer controversy.
“I don't think we have an alternative,” she said. “Because we don’t want to go through another upsetting experience like we had in the past.”