In August 2013, a Fairfax County Police Officer shot and killed unarmed John Geer as he stood in his doorway talking to police. There were many civilian witnesses, including family, to the SWAT team killing. Yet, 14 months later, the shooter has not been identified and there has been no explanation for the killing by either the police, the Board of Supervisors which oversees them, the Commonwealth Attorney, or the U.S. Justice Department to which this case was referred for investigation. In Fairfax County, it has been routine in the 74 years since the Board of Supervisors created the Police Department for officers to kill citizens without apparent justification and not be held accountable to anyone but themselves for doing so. The Geer case is only the most recent example.
John Geer’s family, some of whom were eyewitnesses to the shooting, has been remarkably patient, waiting 14 months so far for completion of the official investigation and explanation as to how and why it was the unarmed, non-threatening Mr. Geer was shot to death. Finally, their patience ran out. They have filed suit against the police and the county demanding justice — a full explanation, accountability for those responsible, and $12 million for their incredible loss.
No county officer has ever been charged with wrongdoing for killings in the line of duty. Nor has any killing been investigated by anyone except fellow officers. The police and county have been sued by families of the dead, but to date Fairfax County has opted to pay seven-figure settlements with our tax dollars rather than go to trial or lift the iron veil of secrecy.
And, the Board of Supervisors, to whom the police nominally report, has inexplicably failed to hold them accountable.
I do, however, see signs for hope the Geer case may be different. Why should I, a known pessimist, think there is a chance to break the perfect record of non-accountability to the people who pay the police to protect them? Here are some possible reasons.
Police employed a heavily armed SWAT team arrayed like a firing squad for this domestic dispute raising the question of excessive force;
Unlike many police killings, there were many civilian witnesses to this one;
Police left the badly wounded man to die;
The Commonwealth Attorney, usually a rubber stamp for the police, declared an unspecified “conflict of interest” and referred investigation of the shooting and shooter to the Justice Department which has to date remained silent;
The Board of Supervisors suddenly has shown an interest in this case. Chairman Bulova sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney expressing concern about the delay; and,
The Geer family, which is suing county police, says they will not settle for cash, and wants a trial to force police to explain fully the circumstances.
Of course, the police and some who advise the Board of Supervisors will resist genuine accountability to the people of Fairfax County. So, it will be an uphill struggle. But, at least two supervisors (one Democrat and one Republican) are acknowledging they favor new approaches, such as the creation of an independent civilian review board.
Seventy-five percent of U.S. jurisdictions the size of Fairfax County already have them and they generally work well, renewing community confidence in their police and finding very few officers abusing their lethal power once there is oversight.
Seventy-four years without accountability for using lethal force is more than long enough. Think about it. It is hard to believe that any officer drawing his or her gun is not aware that there is no penalty for miscalculation and unjustified use of it. That is a very scary proposition. But how can it be otherwise after 74 years?