In some ways, the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, brainchild of Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, was a bit of a miracle.
The 32 voting commission members included at least nine representatives from Fairfax County Police; former Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Horan; current and former law enforcement officers with experience from the FBI, DEA, state police and others; other former county officials; mental health advocates; attorneys; high powered consultants. Ranks of those participating swelled to 80 when others were appointed the five subcommittees.
How could such a large, intense group with so many viewpoints get anything done? It seemed crazy to expect much. But Bulova, apparently, was crazy like a fox. Bulova and commission chair Michael Hershman, expressed unwavering commitment to the process.
The 142 recommendations, the result of democracy in action, provide support and more resources to the FCPD, while providing for transparency and public confidence.
Police, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, county attorneys and others provided answers to questions and consulted on recommendations every step of the way. The commission and subcommittees met for literally hundreds of hours over nine months. Individual members took on in-depth research projects and reported back to subcommittees.
Members of the Mental Health subcommittee, chaired by Del. Marcus Simon, traveled to Texas for a first-hand look at an effective Crisis Intervention program. In January, the Community Services Board, Police and Sheriff’s Office launched Diversion First, to get people having a mental health crisis who come into contact with law enforcement into treatment instead of jail. If this were the only accomplishment of the police review commission, it would be an achievement.
The Independent Oversight and Investigations subcommittee unanimously recommended formation of an Independent Auditor and a Civilian Review Panel. Independent oversight is a national best practice, and these issues come before the Board of Supervisors next month.
The commission recommends the implementation of body worn cameras, a recommendation that appears to be set for delay. This might be necessary, but if so, the delay should come with a timetable for next steps.
Changing the culture from withholding information to sharing as much as possible, as soon as possible, and responding to Freedom of Information requests with as much information as possible are part of the recommendations of the Communications subcommittee. Police departments in Northern Virginia have invoked a blanket exemption to FOIA requests, which has been part of the erosion of public trust.
Key recommendations include Independent Auditor, Civilian Review Panel, commitment to transparency, body cameras, data collection.
The robust collection and reporting of demographics covering all stops, frisks, citations, arrests, and use-of-force incidents by district station and magisterial district is also key to public trust and departmental excellence.
Bulova and the Board of Supervisors formed the commission in the wake of the death of John Geer in August of 2013. Geer, a Springfield resident, was standing unarmed with his hands up in the doorway of his own home when he was shot by Officer Adam Torres. Torres, charged with murder, was the first Fairfax County Police officer in the history of the department to be charged in such a death. Torres entered a guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter, with a likely sentence of 12 months; his sentencing is scheduled for next week.
Public outrage over Geer’s death was compounded by obfuscation and silence, the failure to communicate, and a lack of public accountability. The police and county refused to release any information on the case for more than a year, and only then after repeated court orders. This tragedy and its aftermath no doubt had a negative impact on morale in the FCPD. The commission’s recommendations acknowledge the excellence of the Fairfax police. It’s a credit to the department that Chief Edwin Roessler aspires to make FCPD the best in the nation. It’s a high bar, county residents expect no less, and steps in that direction are a positive reflection on every member of the department.
It now falls to Supervisor John Cook, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, to guide these recommendations through for approval by the Board of Supervisors overall. The process is underway, and deserves public attention to the details.
Mary Kimm served as a member of the Fairfax County Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. Read more at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecommission
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