Column: Another Questionable Use of Lethal Force

Column: Another Questionable Use of Lethal Force

On Aug. 29, another civilian was shot to death in a situation that, on the face of it, did not justify the use of lethal force. Mr. John Geer was shot to death standing in the doorway of his home with no visible weapon according to reports from his father and neighbors.

Once again, the police are silent on what happened. The story is all too familiar. Several men armed with the weapons of war, in full battle gear, shout orders at a suspect and shoot the person to death. It has all the feel of a military strike, not civilian law enforcement protecting the public. Lethal force seems almost standard procedure, not the last resort it should be. Consider:

  • police are called to the scene by someone reporting a domestic disturbance and a man who may have a gun;

  • Mr. Geer has no record of violence and no weapons are visible, according to witnesses promptly ordered to leave the area—for their safety presumably;

  • the Fairfax County PD SWAT officers talk to and shout orders to the lone man standing in his doorway in shorts to come outside. He does not and shots are fired by an officer police refuse to identify. The suspect is quite dead when police ram their way into his home;

  • then, police throw the shroud of secrecy over the scene and the story of what happened. There is no official public report, no explanation by FCPD of what led to the shooting, and the officer’s name is not disclosed.

Witnesses and neighbors who spoke to the press say they do not understand why it was necessary to shoot Mr. Geer. He wasn’t armed, had never been a problem and certainly posed no threat to the heavily armed officers. (In fact, a detective said a gun was found in a holster some distance from where he stood.)

What happened next is also all too familiar. The police say the shooter is on administrative leave pending an investigation by … his fellow officers. In the 71-year history of the FCPD, there has never been independent investigation or review by a third party of killings by FCPD officers in the line of duty. And, in the 71 years, no shooter has ever been charged with, much less convicted of, any wrongdoing. I outlined several other recent, troubling cases in a prior column.

The Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability has long advocated creation of a Citizens Review Board of the sort working in over 125 large jurisdictions around the country. Such boards in fact serve both the public interest and the police officers in getting at the truth. It likely would be a rare case when such review turned up wrongdoing by our otherwise well-trained corps. It would be healthy for officers to understand that as public servants paid by the citizens, they are accountable to the public, especially when they use lethal force.

A few years ago, Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said, “I look forward to working with the chief to create a Citizen Review Board in Fairfax County.” Supervisors John Foust and Penny Gross also expressed support for civilian review. Hunter Mill Supervisor Hudgins regrettably refused to respond when asked, according to CCPA. The initiative went nowhere. What is the board afraid of? Action by the supervisors to protect the public and stop putting the county police above the law is long overdue.