Fairfax County By its Dec. 6 meeting, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors should have the opportunity to vote on creating a Civilian Review Panel for police oversight, a first in Fairfax.
That’s the goal of supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock), who chairs the board’s public safety committee. The committee met Tuesday, Oct. 25 to consider a draft of the action item that would establish the review panel.
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 a lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the 2013 shooting death of unarmed Springfield man John Geer by Fairfax County Police officer Adam Torres.
Fairfax County Police and the supervisors didn’t release information about the case for more than a year after Geer’s death, even to his family. It took a wrongful death civil suit filed by the family and a court order to finally get investigation files and Torres’ name released.
Torres was fired in July 2015 and indicted by a grand jury for murder in August 2015, a first charge of that kind for any officer in the history of Fairfax County Police.
The former police officer pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was released in June, after receiving credit for time served for a 12-month sentence.
On Sept. 20, the supervisors unanimously approved another recommendation from the commission: creating an office of the independent police auditor.
The auditor 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,” according to the draft action item.
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 they determine more work is required, the panel would be able to send the issue back to the police.
Citizens could initiate that process in two ways, Cook explained: If they file a complaint with the police department but are unsatisfied with the results of an investigation, they can bring the matter to the civilian review panel. Or they could submit a complaint to the panel directly, which could request an investigation be conducted by police, that could then be reviewed by the panel.
Review of the investigations would happen at public meetings held by the panel. Fairfax County Chief of Police Edwin Roessler and an officer from the Internal Affairs Bureau would attend these hearings to offer additional explanation, but involved officers can’t be required to come before the panel or answer questions, under the Code of Virginia.
Adrian Steel, a member of the Ad Hoc Commission, said the goal of the meeting was to provide the public with a “full and fair presentation” of an investigation review.
The meeting before the panel would provide a place for the complainant to appear “and have his or her day,” Steel said. But Cook raised questions about whether the complainant should speak at the meeting, and if so, what limits might be in place.
Cook and Deputy County Executive Dave Rohrer said the complainant could state the reasons he or she asked for a review. Rohrer said that since police investigators will appear before the panel to answer questions, it would be fair to allow the complainant to speak as well.
The board will also need to finalize criteria for who would be eligible to serve on the nine-person panel. All panel members would be appointed by the supervisors, but they would encourage communities and organizations to nominate candidates. Other potential criteria would exclude current and former Fairfax County employees, as well as current law enforcement officers and anyone holding public office.
Panel access to sensitive documents that would be part of the investigation files created another area of controversy.
Police Officer 1st Class Richard Barron said members of the department are “very concerned” with the fact that volunteer civilians would have that type of access.
Det. Sean Corcoran, President of the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000 and a member of the Ad Hoc Commission, said it’s about “who has access to what, and when, and why.”
Corcoran echoed a suggestion made by supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) and separately by Kathy Smith (D-Sully) that the board could wait to establish the civilian review panel until after the independent auditor office is up and running.
Barron challenged the need for a Civilian Review Panel and said the reviews the police conduct on themselves are adequate. “I don’t see a legitimate need for it,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s any purpose” for another level of review, Barron said, adding that officers feel this panel is being “rammed down their throats.”
Unlike Barron and Corcoran, Chief of Police for Fairfax County Edwin Roessler voiced support for the panel. He acknowledged “we have a great department,” but said he believes in moving forward with engaging in the community in this way, while protecting the rights of officers.
BOARD CHAIRMAN Sharon Bulova asked Corcoran, who voted in favor of the Ad Hoc commission’s final list of recommendations, if he’d changed his mind since then. Corcoran responded he had lobbied against the panel prior to the final vote, but was outnumbered.
Herrity said he supports independent oversight, but is concerned that the fiscal impact of the panel is unknown.
“In the face of a $200 million shortfall,” he said, referring to budget projections, “we’re creating a huge workload for the police department with no gain.”
The draft item states, the civilian review panel would be created “for the purpose of building and maintaining public trust and police legitimacy.”
John Foust (D-Dranesville) asked that staff begin to develop a significant education and training program for panel members on topics including FOIA, handling of sensitive information and other topics.
Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) spoke of the importance of forming the panel. “This is the best for you,” she told the police organization representatives, noting that the community must be able to see the process. “I don’t think we have an alternative.”
The Board of Supervisors expects to vote on the proposal for Civilian Review Panel at its Dec. 6 regular meeting, with documents posted the week before. The next public safety committee meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. More information is available at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/bosclerk/board-committees/meetings.