Letter: Fairfax Won’t Charge Officer

Letter: Fairfax Won’t Charge Officer

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

This is a story of two governments handling of whether to hold police officers accountable when they have clear evidence the officer shot and killed an unarmed citizen. In Charleston, S.C., after a video showed the officer in Charleston shot his victim in the back as he was running away, that officer has been charged with murder by the state’s South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and now has been fired. The officials in South Carolina acted swiftly to bring charges to hold the officer accountable, with Charleston’s mayor adding “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.” The officer is innocent until proven guilty in a court

of law and it appears he and the people of South Carolina will get their day in court. On the surface, it seems the national media now has its best police accountability poster child example to date.

In Fairfax County, a police officer shot a man while he held his arms up in the doorway of his home. He was calmly speaking with the officers, was charged with no crime, his girlfriend had reported a domestic disturbance and then left his townhouse unharmed. Shortly after John Geer informed the officers he was going to lower his hands to scratch his nose, officer Torres shot him in the doorway of his home.

Six witness statements all agreed, including the four police officers who witnessed Torres shooting Geer. In a rare bright spot in this story, kudos to those four individual officers for telling the truth, even if it was bad for their fellow officer. Police and county leadership managed to keep those statements hidden from public view for almost a year and a half. Living in a suburb of Washington D.C., we are familiar with the concept that the cover-up is worse than the crime, which makes what happens next so much worse.

After Geer was shot in his doorway, he fell back into his home, shutting the door. Geer was left there bleeding out for well over an hour; police kept Geer’s father and best friend who were on site from going to his aid. Only after bringing in a tank to ram through the unlocked door did they allow medical aid to be rendered all too late. Police released almost no facts other than Geer was shot, and immediately went into PR spin mode saying police were “advised was armed with a firearm,” which was much later revised to “displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police.” These statements were carefully crafted to

imply Geer was some kind of police-hating crazed gunman. Police leadership was apparently counting on the statements from the officers on the scene to remain sealed, since they said Geer was unarmed and not threatening. After all, police and county leadership had successfully kept those statements secret for well over a year. The police chief withheld evidence about the shooter from investigators, both the local prosecutor and the federal prosecutor. The federal prosecutor successfully sued Fairfax police to force them to turn over the evidence.

After well over a year of no justification, information, or action, the frustrated Geer family filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his two teenage daughters. Fairfax police refused in court to give the family any information about Geer’s death, citing executive privilege, the law enforcement exemption from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, and claiming there is an ongoing investigation after acknowledging the investigation had stopped. Is this my county leadership? Sounds like a storyline for the TV show “Scandal”, where half-truths, lies, discredit and blame the other guy, and PR distractions are routine and expected. Fortunately, the judge recognized their ruse and ordered the information be released. Seventeen months after the incident the public finally saw this was an open and shut case from the start. Like the Trident dentists, 4 out of 5 officers on the scene said it was a bad shoot.

Despite this, Fairfax Police Chief Edwin Roessler, former police chief and current Deputy County Executive for Public Safety David Rohrer, county attorneys David Bobzien and Cynthia Tianti, and county Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova appear more concerned with protecting the county from the wrongful death lawsuit instead of voluntarily releasing information or holding the officer accountable.

Fairfax leadership apparently hoped the case would simply fade away. After all, that tactic had worked for previous cases where lethal officers were kept on the payroll after they made bad decisions to shoot and kill unarmed Fairfax County citizens like David Masters, Sal Culosi, and others before them.

In Charleston, the police officer was charged with murder, arrested and fired in less than a week. In Fairfax, no job loss, no indictments, no arrests, no charges, no grand jury. Nineteen months and counting.

After over a year and a half of persistent public outcry, Fairfax County supervisors created a commission to review police disclosure and use-of-force policies. While I applaud the efforts to change disclosure policies, I am not content to have my local government merely tell me that one of their police officers has killed yet another unarmed civilian. More to the point, I don’t want my daughter to learn justice is just a pipe dream, watching a police officer walk away with no consequences after he shoots me in my home. Is it acceptable we are simply informed about lethal officers, or should they also be held accountable? Nineteen months later, with thousands of pages of incriminating evidence forced into public view, Officer Torres is still employed by the police department, and no charges have been filed. One of the grievances Virginian Thomas Jefferson cited in the Declaration of Independence was: "… armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States." What we have now in Fairfax County is the same protection from punishment for murder, but Fairfax officials can’t even be bothered with the window dressing of the "mock trial," they just don’t bring charges. No one should be above the law. It is not anti-police to call for an independent investigative organization evaluating potentially wrong actions of our police, especially when they have lethal consequences. Not only should we have a transparent path with a fair hearing to clear officers of wrongdoing when things look bad initially, but there also needs to be consequences and accountability when officers are proven to have acted badly.

Keith Harmon