Mount Vernon In the past several years four people have been shot and killed by Fairfax County police under what the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability characterizes as “questionable circumstances.” Up until now no one, including the families of the deceased victims, has been able to obtain a police incident report despite the fact that the four cases are closed.
The CCPA was formed in response to the shooting death in 2009 of David Masters, an unarmed driver who was being pursued by Fairfax County police because he allegedly took flowers from a Route 1 store. Since that incident and the formation of the CCPA, numerous letters of complaint have been sent by citizens to the CCPA alleging police misconduct in other cases.
The CCPA letters sent to the police last week requesting police reports include shooting deaths in three other cases in addition to Masters. CCPA Executive Director Nicholas Beltrante said that the purpose of the letters is “quite straightforward: to find out what happened in the shooting deaths, why deadly force was used instead of a taser gun or beanbag gun, and to find out if police misconduct took place.”
He also said, “Assuming the police departments probably will not release the reports because of the blanket FOIA exemption, our letters will highlight to the public the importance of amending the Virginia FOIA to require the release of police incident reports, and the value of improving police accountability by creating an independent police citizen oversight panel made up of Fairfax county citizens …. Unnecessary use of deadly force by the police, if it is occurring, will undermine the integrity and confidence of the public in our police and our elected officials.”
It was his view based on the evidence presented from the families of the victims, press reports, autopsy reports, and witnesses that a possibility exists that excessive deadly force may not likely have been necessary in the four cases cited in the FOIA letters.
“We have to know all the facts of the cases and this is the only way the public can judge whether police misconduct took place, no matter how compelling the evidence we now have from the families and the press reports,” said Beltrante.
According to the National Association of Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) there are approximately 100 citizen oversight organizations in existence nationally in cities and counties. NACOLE representatives stated that Fairfax County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the U.S. without an independent police citizen oversight panel.
Several state-wide organizations are strongly supportive of amending the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to allow for access to police incident reports by right: Virginia Press Association, Virginia Coalition for Open Government, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Despite their support and the efforts of their members thus far progress in opening up the access to police incident reports has not been realized. One elected official, State Senator John S. Edwards (Dem-Roanoke, District 21) has for several years introduced legislation to allow the release of criminal investigative files under FOIA when a case is no longer active or ongoing.
Police Guidelines on Use of Deadly Force
General Order, Fairfax County Police Department (excerpts)
Number 540.1: In any situation where an officer is otherwise acting lawfully, the use of deadly force is justified in the defense of the officer’s life or other person’s life. Also, the use of deadly force is justified in protecting the officer or public from serious injury.
Deadly force shall not be employed to apprehend a fleeing misdemeanant. Deadly force may be used to apprehend a fleeing felon if: all other means to effect an arrest have been exhausted, the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect committed a heinous crime, and the felon’s escape poses a threat of serious injury or death to the officer or to others.
The Four Victims
The four CCPA letters requested police incident reports on the following victims. Each of the letters asked for the following information:
“We hereby request a copy of your department’s Internal Affairs Bureau criminal activity report, the date and location of the shooting death of the victim, the identity of the officer or officers responsible for the shooting death of the victim, the identity of all the officers on the scene who witnessed this event, memoranda, notes, diagrams, maps, all photographs including vehicle camcorder/camera photos, correspondence, reports, witness statements and all other evidence relating to your departments investigation of the incident …. If you determine that only portions of this file are exempt from release, we request that we be provided with all nonexempt portions.”
The shooting victims described in the FOIA letters are as follows:
- Name of shooting victim: David A. Masters
Date of shooting incident: Nov. 13, 2009
What is known: Shot once in the back while sitting in his car on a service road at the corner of Fort Hunt road and Route 1; unarmed; did not own a weapon; former Green Beret Vietnam veteran. Police officer who did the shooting said he thought that Masters rolled over an officer in front of the car, the car was stolen, and he was reaching for a gun. All allegations invalidated according to press reports.
Alleged offense: Petty larceny theft of flowers
- Name of shooting victim: Dr. Salvatore J. Culosi
Date of shooting incident: Jan. 24, 2006
What is known: Shot once in the chest standing in front of his home; unarmed; SWAT team officer allegedly accidentally discharged his weapon when he came to the Culosi home to present a warrant for his arrest. Culosi was an optometrist. Fairfax police have revised their policies as to when a SWAT team assigned to a case.
Alleged offense: Sports gambling (taking bets on football games).
Fairfax County settled family lawsuit against the police officer for $2 million.
- Name of shooting victim: Randall Leroy Rollins
Date of shooting incident: May 23, 2007
What is known: Shot multiple times while sitting in the back seat of a car at a Route 1 Motel. Driver and female accompanying Rollins was not harmed. Autopsy report describes 11 gunshot wounds, including three to the head. The victim’s family stated that after he was killed he was dragged out of the car. Police allege that the victim was going for a gun and refused to comply with their commands. The police were at the motel on a drug-related criminal investigation.
- Name of shooting victim: Hailu Brook
Date of shooting Incident: Dec. 10, 2008
What is known: Fairfax County police pursued the victim from Fairfax County to Arlington County. The Fairfax County police said he robbed a bank in McLean. News reports stated he was shot because he pointed a toy gun at the police. Police refused to release the incident report or the bank video tape to the family, or to explain why he was shot in the back.
For information about these cases or the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, Inc. (CCPA) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.