FAIRFAX COUNTY will have the chance Tuesday to go from wrong to right on police accountability.
The county was wrong when it failed for more than a year to take responsibility for the shooting of an unarmed man by one of its officers in 2013. It started to make things right when, after the controversy that followed, the county Board of Supervisors commissioned a group of civilians to propose accountability-boosting revisions to police procedures. Tuesday, the most essential of those recommendations — a civilian review panel to look over investigations of police misconduct — could finally get the green light.
The panel would allow citizens to submit complaints about police investigations they think have gone awry through a channel outside the department. Their peers, all members of the Fairfax County community, would review those complaints and determine whether the case deserved a second look. The board has already approved an independent auditor to monitor internal affairs investigations of incidents involving death or serious injury.
The review-panel plan has been revised somewhat since the initial recommendation. For example, while citizen complainants will retain the right to speak and take questions before the panel, they won’t be allowed to present new evidence or testimony. And although the commission suggested the panel have a single representative from a law enforcement background, it now must have a minimum of one. It’s up to the Board of Supervisors to appoint a balanced slate of members.
Even with these alterations, the panel’s approval Tuesday would mark a major turning point for Fairfax. John Geer’s death more than three years ago made news, and it laid bare broader problems in county policing. Just this summer, statistics showed that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in the county involved black residents, who account for only about 10 percent of the county’s population.
These troubling numbers underscore the need for reforms, including outside review. But the county can’t stop there: Though the police department says it has implemented around 90 percent of the recommendations under its purview, some remain in progress. A pilot program for police body cameras, which the board says it plans to turn to early next year, should top the list.
The citizen review panel is designed to address abuse after it occurs. The county must continue pursuing other measures to stop that abuse from happening in the first place.