For a county that has long stood beneath a legal cone of silence when it came to police shootings, and enjoyed the relative absence of media scrutiny that is focused on cities but not suburbs, Fairfax County is on the verge of a historic, 180-degree change of direction. It is poised to hire a full-time independent auditor who will “participate in and monitor all Internal Affairs investigations” of police shootings, in-custody deaths and all other police-involved deaths or serious injuries, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors indicated in a hearing Tuesday.
Unless there’s good cause not to, “the auditor shall issue a public report with respect to each reviewed investigation,” as recommended by the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission formed last year, “within 60 days of the Auditor’s access to the complete Internal Affairs file,” and the auditor “shall have full access to the criminal investigation file as well.” And, “the auditor shall also issue a public report annually concerning the thoroughness, completeness, accuracy, objectivity and impartiality of the internal affairs investigations reviewed by the auditor.”
This is huge. But there’s more.
For cases that don’t involve death or serious injury, the county is ready to create a nine-member Civilian Review Panel, which will take complaints from citizens, forward them to the police for investigation, and then review the outcome of the cases and hold public hearings if needed. The civilian panel would not do its own investigations, but it would receive a report from the police on the alleged misconduct and any findings, and the board could then hold public hearings, with both the complainant and the officer allowed to present evidence. “Command staff and internal affairs investigators shall appear before the panel upon request,” the Ad Hoc recommendations being considered by Fairfax state, and the county “shall produce any documents or other materials … as requested by the panel.”
The Board of Supervisors discussed and seemed to embrace virtually all of this in a meeting Tuesday, though they will not vote until September on making it happen. But it is a dramatic move to increase transparency and accountability in Fairfax County, and most importantly it was wholeheartedly endorsed by Fairfax police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. Both Roessler and the board endured great criticism for the extensive secrecy surrounding the August 2013 police slaying of John B. Geer in Springfield. If Fairfax truly does create an independent auditor and a civilian review panel, those would be the most significant positives to emerge from the Geer case, which resulted in Fairfax paying a $2.95 million wrongful death settlement and watching one of its officers plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter nearly three years after the shooting.
It’s also an important step in repairing relationships, in at least one large community — Fairfax’s population of 1.1 million is bigger than most cities — at a time when police-public relations are in utter turmoil nationwide. Whether it’s police-involved shootings or police officers being targeted themselves, the preferred model of police as respected protectors of the peace has been turned upside down. Here is one large, meaningful step that police departments can take to reestablish faith that they are a part of a community, not simply its armed guardians.
“There are about 18,000 police departments in this country,” Roessler said. “What we are doing here truly needs to be done in the other 17,999 law enforcement agencies around the country.”
Roessler’s full-throated endorsement of the auditor and civilian panel, along with the retirement of long-time supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who wouldn’t even hold committee hearings on public safety, created the path to serious reform in Fairfax. Roessler’s comments Tuesday were almost surprising in their enthusiasm for having outsiders poke their noses in what has traditionally been police-only business: investigating police misconduct. But he has said he was committed to making Fairfax more engaged with its citizens, and here was some solid proof.
“It’s very clear,” Roessler said, the auditor would objectively review all death and serious use of force cases, and the civilian panel will look at “abuse of authority” cases. “We agree with that. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Transparency is what we needed, and I fully support it as chief. It’s something we need to move forward. This is greatly needed in the law enforcement profession.”
Now keep in mind that this is a department that did not release the name of John Geer’s shooter or any details of the case for 16 months, and then only after ordered by a Fairfax judge. A dash-cam video of the 2009 police killing of motorist David Masters on Route 1 was not released until 2015. In 2006, when two Fairfax officers were shot and killed at a police station, no details of the attack were released for seven months.
But after the details of the Geer case were finally made public in early 2015, along with revelations that Fairfax police had not cooperated with state and federal prosecutors, and that Fairfax prosecutor Raymond Morrogh’s attempts to meet with the Fairfax board had been rebuffed, board Chairman Sharon Bulova formed the Ad Hoc commission to look at all of the police policies and practices. Committees were formed on use of force, hiring, mental health, communications and independent oversight. The independent oversight committee issued its report and recommendations for an auditor and a civilian review panel last October, and some thought that might be the last of it.
Instead, Roessler met with committee chairman Jack Johnson, and all of the committee chairs, and embraced huge sections of each report. “We are on the same page,” Roessler said Tuesday of his meetings with the five committee chairs. “There is no conflict.”
Tuesday’s developments were “amazing to me,” said Nicholas Beltrante, a retired Wahington police officer who has been agitating for civilian oversight since the Masters killing, and who formed the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability in 2010. “I just never thought it would occur,” said Beltrante, who was on the Ad Hoc commission. “The citizens have never been given a fair deal regarding these matters.” He is not disbanding the citizens coalition yet.
There are still rivers to cross. No one had an estimated cost for a full-time auditor and staff. In Denver, where Nicholas E. Mitchell serves as independent monitor for the city and county police, the staff is 14 and the annual budget is $1.4 million. But Mitchell said his office had been able to change the way police used body cameras and reduced the city’s liability, and they also changed the policy on shooting at moving vehicles and for accountability in the county jail.
The civilian review panel would have no investigative powers prior to the police reviewing and concluding a case. “It is not intended to be another separate investigation,” Johnson said. He and others suggested the panel would be another “portal” for citizens to file complaints, and a way to get accountability after they are handled by the police. “A segment of our community does not trust the police,” Roessler acknowledged Tuesday. “This provides them an unbiased alternative.”
Roessler said the new civilian posts and reports would be more work for him, but “that’s an extra loop I’m happy to take on.” He even said, “We need more complaints, in order to build a stronger relationship with the community.” There are costs, but “I can’t put a price tag on that,” the chief said, “the ability is to build trust with the community and that we take this seriously.”
The police unions are not happy, though Sean Corcoran, head of the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000, sat on the committee which unanimously recommended the auditor and civilian panel. “For me, the importance is in getting these critical incident investigations right,” Corcoran said. He noted that it was odd that the Fairfax prosecutor doesn’t have its own investigator, which the committee recommended and Morrogh would have to find money for somewhere. Corcoran said he was concerned about the costs, and “I’d rather see [the money] go towards programs to help officers.”
Joseph Woloszyn, head of the local Patrolmen’s Benefit Association chapter, asked, “Which of these are we not doing here in Fairfax County? That’s my question.” He was met with silence.
The answer is there are currently no civilians involved in any police misconduct investigation in Fairfax County. This creates the suspicion that police are protecting their own. This suspicion was made worse when Roessler, on the advice of county attorneys, withheld personnel files from Morrogh and federal prosecutors in the Geer case. The new proposals would put non-police participants in every critical investigation and require reports about them to the public, while still allowing experienced police investigators to run the investigations. That’s what is not being done now. And doing it would be a gigantic change for Fairfax County.