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Opportunity for Accountability?

Independent Progressive

We have a new Fairfax County Police chief (Reston Connection, Aug. 7-13). He is 24-year veteran Lt. Col. Edwin Roessler, Jr., who replaced Chief David Rohrer.

While the FCPD force grew and most crime actually declined under Roessler’s predecessor, the department’s record of heavy, some would say excessive, use of lethal force continued during his 9-year tenure. Regrettably, the FCPD continued to use lethal force with impunity—i.e., without any real accountability to the community for its sometimes questionable use.

The Fairfax County Police Department was formed in 1942, when the Board of Supervisors removed law enforcement from the control of the independently elected sheriff and put it directly under the board, in theory to improve accountability to the civilian authority. Yet, in FCPD’s first 71 years, when it comes to the use of lethal force, there has been no public accountability. In those 71 years, not a single FCPD officer has been charged with misconduct, or a crime, for the shooting and death of a citizen in the line of duty.

A shroud of secrecy envelops the operations of the FCPD and some other law enforcement agencies given great leeway to withhold information from the public under Virginia law. The Board of Supervisors could in fact require greater transparency, but for some reason they do not. When a police officer kills someone in the line of duty, no matter the circumstances, the only investigation the police will allow is internal. That is, police officers are only investigated by fellow officers. Fairfax County does not provide for independent, civilian review.

The Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability (CCPA) and the NAACP, among others, repeatedly call on the Board of Supervisors for citizen oversight, to no avail. CCPA compiled the following list of questionable Fairfax police-related shooting deaths in just the last seven years. The victims were unarmed. FCPD refused to release incident reports of these shootings: 1) Dr. Salvatore Culosi—shot through the heart when officer inadvertently discharged his weapon when he bumped his car door. 2006. County paid family a $2 million settlement; 2) Randall Collins—shot 11 times while seated in the back seat of a car. 2007; 3) Hailu Brook—shot multiple times in the back while fleeing. 2008; 4) David Masters—shot in the back while seated at the wheel of his vehicle. 2009; and, 5) Nicholas Kaelber—looked suspicious, fled and shot multiple times in the back. 2012.

In Reston, we have relatively few crime issues for a community of 60,000 people. FCPD officers do a good job of keeping us safe, sometimes at great personal risk. The deaths cited above represent a small fraction of incidents involving officers working to keep us safe. I have a great deal of respect for our police, but the power to employ lethal force is an awesome one, which must be exercised with professionalism and with accountability. We may have the former in Fairfax County, but not the latter. In a democracy the government’s power to kill its citizens cannot be exercised with impunity as it is in Fairfax County.

Let’s hope that part of incoming Chief Roessler’s legacy will be transparency and accountability in police operations, especially citizen oversight and review of the use of lethal force. For more information, go to virginiaccpa@aol.com.