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A Year Later: No Decision on Police Oversight

Police Chief supports designating internal auditor to investigate citizen allegations of police misconduct.

— Since March 29, 2011 when the Board of Supervisors received the former County Executives’ recommendation, there’s been no final decision on whether or not to establish an independent review process for the police department. The board’s Public Safety Committee chair, Supervisor Gerald Hyland, recently stated that the board unanimously rejected the creation of a Citizen Review Board as recommended by the Mount Vernon-based Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. But does that mean no independent review of citizen allegations of police misconduct of any kind?

Mary Ann Jennings, director of public information for the police department, said, “There has been no final decision by the board on whether to establish police oversight, or what form that would take if approved. In the meantime the investigation by the Internal Auditor of the police department’s Internal Affairs function has not been completed.” Jennings added that Chief David Rohrer has not discussed the March 2011 Action Item with new County Executive Ed Long to determine where he stands on the issue.

Over a year ago, the former County Executive, Tony Griffin, submitted an Action Item to the Board of Supervisors: “Approval to Establish an Independent Review Process for the Police Department” in which four models were outlined — Citizen Review Board, Police Investigation with Citizen Oversight, Police Investigation with a Citizen Appeal Board and Independent Auditor. The former County Executive, the Police Chief, and the Police Department supported the Independent Auditor option.

The reasons for recommending the Auditor option as described in the County

Board’s Action Item paper, were described as follows:

  • The Internal Auditor currently investigates alleged inappropriate behavior and business practices, and has familiarity with police procedure and investigatory practices.
  • The Internal Auditor is outside of the Police Department and reports to the County Executive who supervises the Deputy County Executive for Public Safety. The view here is this satisfies the independent third party review requirement.
  • The Internal Auditor approach will not add to the burden of time and expense. Also, it doesn’t interfere with the rights of police officers (the Procedural Guarantee Act).
  • The police union has been briefed and supports this option.
  • There is no strong evidence that a Citizen Review Board provides additional value to the review process. The paper stated that this option remains a long-term option if there is a lack of satisfaction with the experience under the Auditor model.

The paper cautioned that what was being recommended is not an Independent Auditor function that would perform investigations separate from the police department. However, the paper stated that the fact that the public can initiate independent reviews of Police Department actions will enhance the public’s trust of the police. Also, the anticipated installation of digital cameras on all police vehicles was viewed as an additional enhancement for police accountability.

The Internal Auditor recommendation is at odds with the recommendation by the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. Since its formation in April 2010 following the shooting death of David Masters, the group has urged some form of police citizen oversight board independent of the police department, reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors, and made up of private citizens appointed by and representative of each supervisor district and at large. One form or another of this independent citizens oversight model is now being used in various forms by cities and counties throughout the U.S.

Fairfax County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the U.S. Without Independent Police Oversight Review by Citizens, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

IN NOVEMBER 2009, a Fairfax County police officer shot and killed an unarmed man, David Masters, at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Route One. Masters, a Vietnam veteran, was pursued by police because he allegedly took flowers from a Route 1 business. He was shot while he was sitting in his car, at the intersection of Fort Hunt road and U.S. Route 1, surrounded by police on three sides.

One of the police officers present shot Masters in the back as he sat in his car. According to police, the officer thought that Masters rolled his car over a fellow police officer, was going for a gun, and the car was stolen. Later it was determined he did not strike a police officer with his car, did not go for a gun — did not own one — and the car was not stolen. Despite efforts by his family and the media to find out what happened, no police incident report was made public and the identity of the police officer who shot Masters was not identified for a year. The police officer was eventually cleared of criminal wrongdoing. The FBI’s civil rights division conducted an investigation into the shooting in 2010. No report of their findings was made public to date.

Since then a Manassas lawyer, Jon E. Shields, filed a civil suit in Prince William County Circuit Court, in November 2011, against Fairfax County, the Fairfax County Police Department, and the police officer who shot and killed Masters. The suit is complicated by the fact that the named plaintiffs, the deceased’s former wife and stepdaughter, have stated they are not interested in pursuing a civil suit filed by Shields, and they did not authorize filing the suit. Shields is married to the late David Masters’ sister, Joyce Shields. A recent check of Prince William County Court records lists the suit as “active.” This shooting incident, the circumstances of the Masters shooting, and the aftermath of how the incident was handled by the Fairfax County police and prompted Nicholas Beltrante of Mount Vernon, a retired D.C. police detective, to form a Virginia non-profit corporation, the Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, Inc.

According to Beltrante, the purpose of the organization is to mobilize support for the creation of a police citizen oversight board with the authority to investigate citizen complaints of alleged police misconduct and report its findings and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, the County Executive, and the Police Chief. In addition to this organizational goal, the CCPA supports more accessible police incident reporting. Currently, Virginia law provides a blanket police exemption of police incident reports from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Since its formation in April 2010 the CCPA has gained the backing of organizational and individual supporters from within the county, around the state, and nationally: Virginia Coalition for Open Government, National Association for Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Northern Virginia Chapter of the NAACP, Virginia ACLU and the Virginia Press Association

Since it’s formation the CCPA has motivated a number of citizens to send letters complaining about alleged police misconduct. One of those letters came from the family of Dr. Salvatore Culosi, who was fatally shot in 2006 while being served a warrant for his arrest for sports gambling. He was unarmed. The police officer who shot him was part of a SWAT team and accidentally discharged his weapon while leaving his car, according to police. The Culosi’s sued the police officer and five years later the county settled the suit for $2 million. This is an example of excessive use of lethal force, according to the Culosi family and the CCPA. Since the CCPA was formed, a number of letters of complaint about alleged police misconduct were sent to them. CCPA in turn forwarded the letters for response to the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova. She has in turn forwarded the letters to Hyland. According to Beltrante, thus far no substantive response has been received by the CCPA beyond Bulova’s acknowledging the receipt of the letters.