FAIRFAX COUNTY caught flak last week when its police department released a report showing that more than 40 percent of its use-of-force cases involved black residents. That’s troubling. But the report would not exist at all if not for the county’s increased commitment to police transparency in the wake of an unarmed man’s unwarranted death in 2013. It seems even bigger changes are soon to come.
Last fall, a little more than two years after a Fairfax County police officer shot and killed John Geer on the doorstep of his home in Springfield, a commission recommended 202 revisions to police procedures that would increase accountability. Many gained approval from the Board of Supervisors early on, but the most essential seemed to stick in the board’s collective craw: the creation of a civilian panel, approved by the board and appointed by its chairman, to review allegations of abuse. Now, it looks as though most critics have switched course. The board signaled its support for the panel in a meeting last week, and the policy could see a vote in September.
Geer’s death sparked enough outrage to shock the county out of complacency. Even then, it took public protests, a lawsuit and letters from a U.S. senator for the police department and prosecutors to take action. The civilian review panel would forward citizen complaints to the police for investigation and, if needed, hold public hearings on the outcomes. That would ensure that the next time the community had questions — on subjects such as, perhaps, those recently released statistics — it would get answers. So would the hiring of an independent auditor to investigate encounters involving serious injury or death, which the board also appears to back.
The review panel was the most crucial and the most controversial proposal from the committee, and it met the most opposition, both from board members and from police unions. Some union representatives still have concerns, but Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. has thrown his support behind the measure. Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, in particular, deserves credit for shepherding through the changes and turning the tide.
The details are not set in stone. In the coming months, the board will need to agree on an appointment process to ensure a panel that is at once informed and independent. It will also have to approve bylaws that establish fair, effective proceedings that can exist parallel to any concurrent criminal cases. But the signs so far point to progress. If all goes well, a department that once offered a model for obstinacy and opacity may soon set a standard for just the opposite.