The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 on Tuesday, Dec. 6 to establish a Civilian Review Panel to provide oversight of Fairfax County Police and to hear complaints of police misconduct or abuse of authority.
“I see what we’re doing today as taking another step in making a great police department even better.” — Board of Supervisor Chairman Sharon Bulova
The independent panel was one of the more controversial of the 142 recommendations from the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission created by board chairman Sharon Bulova in 2015. The commission, with representatives from law enforcement, the media and the community at large, was set up in response to public outrage over lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the 2013 shooting death of unarmed Springfield man John Geer by Fairfax County Police officer Adam Torres.
Issues Before Panel
Examples of citizen complaints against police officers that could be directed to the civilian review panel:
• The use of abusive, racial, ethnic or sexual language;
• Harassment or discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, familial status, or disability;
• The reckless endangerment of a detainee or person in custody;
• Serious violations of Fairfax County or FCPD procedures.
From the Ad Hoc Commission’s Use of Force Subcommittee, chairman Phil Niedzielski-Eichner said the Dec. 6 vote was a “tremendous accomplishment” and another opportunity to reinforce the major process the police department and government are undertaking to improve.
“I see what we’re doing today as taking another step in making a great police department even better,” Chairman Bulova said, “[being a] model for the nation, continuing to improve community policing and enhance trust between the community and police department.”
Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler said in an interview after the vote he’s not concerned about the cost of the panel, the caseload or officer morale, issues raised by Supervisor Pat Herrity, the lone vote against the proposal.
“I’m very proud of Fairfax County today,” Roessler said. “It showed how a community, political leaders and a highly engaged police department can work together to create more transparency and accountability.”
FAIRFAX COUNTY will have a civilian review panel for police oversight, but will that body have the teeth to regain public trust in law enforcement and local government? Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) proposed an amendment that would have given the panel more investigative power.
“While we have had some challenges in the past, the absence of the receptivity to the concerns of the community, has been the biggest burden of what we had,” Hudgins said Tuesday, Dec. 6 before she joined the board in voting in favor of establishing a nine-member police review panel comprised of citizens. The panel will have the authority to review completed FCPD investigations into citizen complaints of abuse or misconduct by Fairfax County police.
After reviewing the investigation, the panel would report to the Board of Supervisors with essentially a rating of how well they think it was executed. The panel could, as Supervisor and Public Safety Committee chairman John Cook (R-Braddock) said, “send it back to be done better, say it was done great, say it was done horribly, and pass that information to us and to the public.”
What that body would not have the authority to do, and what Hudgins said concerns her, is conduct independent investigations, take sworn testimony or compel officers named in complaints to appear and take part in public hearings with the complainant.
“Are those the limitations we want to exist under?” Hudgins asked prior to the vote. “We will learn very quickly, if we move forward, that it is going to be something that is lacking. We need to be prepared to address it.”
Hudgins alluded to the last several years, a period that included the 2013 fatal shooting of Springfield resident John Geer by Fairfax County Police officer Adam Torres and subsequent public outcry.
“We were unresponsive before,” Hudgins said. “It was a very, very difficult environment to live in. Citizens felt we were not listeners, were not engaged.”
State law limits the authority of a panel such as the one proposed to conduct investigations or take sworn testimony, and the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission did not propose that panel would conduct investigations.
Supervisor Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon) said he was similarly frustrated with the limitations like Hudgins, but said the less than ideal solution still enables citizens to be engaged.
“The most powerful thing we’re doing today, ensuring people are heard,” he said. “[That’s the] core of my support for this.”
The commission also recommended creating a police auditor office. This full-time county government position with a small staff would be able to monitor investigations and review complaints concerning the use of force or police-involved shootings. The supervisors adopted that recommendation in September this year and said they have since begin advertising for candidates.
“I am proud of how far we’ve come in implementing recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Commission, and establishing this panel represents a significant milestone,” Bulova said in a statement following the vote.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) was the lone dissenting vote and has previously voiced his support for the auditor but not the panel.
“I see it as duplicative in a time when we’ve got resource issues,” he said. “It makes us the only jurisdiction in Virginia with two review boards.”
The auditor, approved by the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 20, will review all use of force incidents that result in serious injury or death, as well as other citizen complaints about police use of force not resulting in serious injury or death. In addition, the auditor could engage in policy and practice analysis, as suggested by the Board of Supervisors, county executive or chief of police.
BY CONTRAST, the civilian review panel would “review completed police internal administrative investigations of civilian complaints concerning allegations of abuse of authority and serious misconduct.”
At the Oct. 25 meeting, Cook specified the civilian review panel would not conduct investigations. Rather, the panel would review investigation files and decide whether the police’s own review was “well done, not well done or needs more work,” Cook said. If the panel determines more work is required, the panel would be able to send the issue back to the police.
The fiscal impact of the panel is up in the air, according to the board’s agenda item. Though the panel members will be volunteers, they will be supported by the auditor’s staff and the county expects there to be other undetermined costs of time from FCPD, the County Attorney’s Office, independent counsel and other required materials.
Herrity said he was also critical of “a number of issues with the implementation and the terrible impact on the morale of our great police department which keeps us the safest jurisdiction of our size in the country.”
Unlike Hudgins, Herrity said he really hasn’t heard from the community “that we have a significant issue here.”
Panel members will be selected by the supervisors from across all Fairfax County magisterial districts. Cook said that could take place as early as the spring.
The final version of the board’s action Item will be posted online at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/government/board/meetings/2016/dec-6.htm.