Pete Earley and John Lovaas served on the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission.
It has been a year since Fairfax County announced it would review recommendations by a special commission to restore public confidence in its police department. Sadly, it has approved only a handful of changes and has weakened some reforms that it approved, raising questions about the county’s commitment to transparency and change.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova took a courageous step when she appointed a 35-member Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission to examine police practices after the 2013 fatal shooting of John Geer. The unarmed Geer was killed by an officer who was later fired and who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, but only after 17 months of stonewalling by the police and the county.
The commission, which included nine active and former police officials, unanimously recommended 142 changes in October 2015 to bolster public confidence. County officials divided them into 202 recommendations under four broad categories. Nearly half concerned “use of force” by police officers. The others focused on police communications with the public, how officers treat individuals with mental illnesses and creating independent oversight of the police.
Of the 202 recommendations, only 20 have been approved. Four were rejected. The remaining 178 are listed as “under review” or “in progress” with no date for completion.
Among those stuck in limbo are the use of body cameras and requirements to make the police more forthcoming after officer-involved shootings to preclude a repeat of the Geer failures.
Besides the slow progress, the board has crippled some recommendations it approved. The commission recommended the board appoint an independent police auditor to review criminal and administrative (disciplinary) investigations of officer-involved incidents that result in civilian death or serious injury and, impanel a civilian review panel to receive and consider citizen complaints about incidents of alleged police abuse of authority or other serious misconduct.
In September, the Board of Supervisors agreed to hire a police auditor, but it sharply curtailed the auditor’s authority. It rejected hiring two independent criminal investigators and ruled that the auditor not review criminal matters until after the cases were officially closed, a legal process that often takes months or years. Instead of directly monitoring internal investigations, the auditor would be informed about them through the police chief.
On Dec. 6, the supervisors will meet to vote on creation of the civilian review panel. Although the commission’s recommendations were unanimously adopted, including “yes” votes by police department and police union representatives, Deputy County Executive David Rohrer, a former Fairfax police chief, and county staff are recommending the board restrict citizen complainants’ right to speak before the panel and its ability to question them, forcing the panel to rely largely on investigations by the department.
Police officers deserve public trust and support. Public outrage about Geer’s death showed significant distrust of the police and officers being subject only to investigation by fellow officers. Before Geer’s death, no Fairfax police officer had been criminally charged, much less indicted, in a killing during the department’s 75-year history. Also troubling: Of the reported 539 police use-of-force incidents in Fairfax County in 2015, 40 percent involved African Americans even though the county’s black population hovers around 8 percent.
If the board hopes to restore public trust, it needs to adopt the commission’s recommendations for the civilian review panel and citizens’ rights without tinkering, and it must speed up approval of the reforms still languishing on the shelves.
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