A committee assigned to examine how the Fairfax County Police Department communicates with the public has issued a blunt report which pulls no punches: “Real change is needed — now,” the report says, criticizing the police for their “lip service to the idea of transparency” on both breaking incidents and routine information requests.
“It is well past time for the Fairfax County Police Department to start providing timely, honest and effective communications with everything it does,” the new report declares. “We deserve nothing less.”
The report was issued by one of five subcommittees formed within the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, formed by Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova in March after public outcry over the lack of information or movement in the still unresolved police shooting of John Geer in Springfield. Geer was shot and killed by Officer Adam D. Torres in August 2013 as he stood unarmed in the doorway of his home, but police refused to discuss the case or even disclose the officer’s name until January 2015, after Geer’s family sued Fairfax police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. for wrongful death. A special grand jury is scheduled to begin hearing testimony on the case Monday.
In addiion to the Ad Hoc commission, an analysis of the Fairfax police’s use of force policies by the Police Executive Research Forum — requested by Roessler before the Geer shooting, but not launched until July 2014 — resulted in 71 recommended changes to the policies, and Roessler said he would make 70 of them. The changes are not drastic, but one in particular could be transformative: A suggestion that Fairfax not begin its training of new recruits with the mechanics of firing a gun, as it does now.
“PERF believes it is important to change this approach,” executive director Chuck Wexler wrote. “The first days and weeks of recruit training should focus on the most significant issues, concepts and values of policing in a democratic society,” to include the role of police in protecting constitutional rights, the sanctity of human life, use-of-force policies and crisis intervention strategies.
Wexler presented the report to the Ad Hoc commission last month, even though it has its own “Use of Force” subcommittee devising its own report. The following week, at the subcommittee’s meeting, Roessler said he embraced the PERF report, which also calls for revamping the way officers decide whether to use force and increasing the number of officers trained to deal with mentally disturbed subjects. Lawyer and commissioner Joseph Cammarata asked the chief whether he would do more than just issue new directives, but actually provide direct training on the new approaches.
“Will you be retraining everybody on use of force?” Cammarata asked.
“I have to. Yes,” Roessler said.
In addition to use of force, the Ad Hoc commission is focusing on four other areas: communications; mental health and crisis intervention training; recruitment, diversity and vetting; and independent oversight and investigations. All five subcommittees are to submit reports and recommendations to the full 34-member commission, for presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 1, and the communications committee weighed in first with a powerful analysis and detailed recommendations to overhaul the way Fairfax police communicate with their community.
“Communications in recent high-profile use-of-force and critical incident cases were mishandled, inadequate and untimely” the report states, “leading to loss of public trust and questions about the legitimacy of police actions…If the department had policies that fostered real transparency, it’s unlikely the controversies in recent years would have lasted so long and there likely would not have even been a call to form this commission.”
The committee calls on the Board of Supervisors to “insist on policies that lean toward releasing information as soon as possible,” whether in daily communications, during a significant event or in a Freedom of Information Act request, which it says the police have a “blanket approach” of rejecting records requests whenever legally able to do so. “There must be significant change coming from the leadership of the county and the Fairfax County Police Department,” Fitzgerald’s committee wrote.
Among the specific recommendations, the committee urges police to release the names of officers involved in shootings within a week, saying the national average is two days, and to immediately release all video and audio recordings if a citizen is killed. The committee also calls on the police to shorten the current 6-20 month timeframe to internally investigate officer-involved shootings and be responsive to questions from the public and news media. In the Geer case, the Fairfax police rejected numerous requests for the name of the officer and only released it after it was ordered provided to Geer’s family by a judge, 16 months after the shooting. The internal investigation of Torres remains open 10 months after it was begun.
Virginia’s Freedom of Information law allows law enforcement agencies to withhold any information in a “criminal investigative file” indefinitely, though it has the discretion to release it as well. Fairfax police, with the guidance of the Fairfax County attorney, have long rejected all requests for police reports of any type. Earlier this month, longtime deputy county attorney Peter D. Andreoli Jr. advised Fitzgerald’s committee that if they wanted to change that approach, they should go to Richmond and change the law.
The committee ignored that suggestion. Instead, they called on the Board of Supervisors to “publicly adopt a resolution…to revisit FOIA laws with an eye toward expanding instead of limiting the public release of information related to police-involved shootings and other police practices and procedures related to official police activities…changing the current policy of automatically withholding all exempt records.”
Roessler read the report and said, “I don’t have a negative reaction to this. Some of the items we have been implementing already,” such as seeking to hire a permanent civilian spokesman, rather than a rotating police commander, and starting to shift the officer handling FOIA requests from the internal affairs unit to the public information office.
Roessler said he appreciated the feedback from members of the community and wanted to keep them active and available to advise him after the Ad Hoc commission formally disbands. The communications report suggested the Board of Supervisors hold community forums every six months starting next year to review the progress Fairfax police are making on the commission’s recommendations, and Roessler said he agreed with that.
Fitzgerald, who was the county’s main spokesperson for 14 years until her retirement last year, said, “Mistakes have been made. So moving foward, the easier part will be to change things like policies, procedures, staffing. The harder part will be changing the culture. And to get the culture of transparency we deserve and want to see is going to make some people uncomfortable.”
Can the Fairfax police change a culture where the tendency is often to release the least amount of information possible? “I understand what they’re saying,” Roessler said. He said he was pushing for a greater presence in social media and quicker release of breaking news. Both he and Fitzgerald noted that the police have provided vast amounts of data and cooperation to the Ad Hoc commission.
But what about releasing actual police reports, virtually never done now? “I’m considering a change,” Roessler said. “There’s got to be more dialogue about how we respond to this. This is a national dialogue, and the profession needs to change. I need to help this department change. This is the community’s voice and I need to actively listen and implement where I can.”
After the commission compiles the five committee reports and submits a full report to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 1, the police will have about three weeks to prepare a detailed response on how they plan to handle the report’s recommendations. The supervisors’ public safety committee will then have a rare meeting on Oct. 27, a week before Election Day, to discuss what they will ask the police to implement.
Do the police have to do the supervisors’ bidding? “I report to them,” Roessler said. “They can work with me to direct policy changes. That’s their prerogative, and they’re my employer. I don’t see any conflict with getting these recommendations in place.”
The commissioners on the communications subcommittee, chaired by Fitzgerald, are Deputy Chief Tom Ryan, police assistant spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell, current county spokesman Tony Castrilli, lawyers Doug Kay and Eric Clingan, Connection newspapers publisher Mary Kimm, former WUSA-9 reporter and current blogger Dave Statter, Tim Thompson and Daniela Cockayne from the county’s federation of citizens association and police homicide Det. John Wallace. Non-commissioners also serving are Darryl Drevna, Patrick Smaldore, Brennan Murphy, Jose Santos and Darryl Dennis.
Below is the committee’s report, and below that is the PERF report on the police use of force policies.