Police Chief is a critical job in Fairfax County. Chief Ed Roessler, with a force of 1400 armed officers, is responsible for keeping us safe in a state with lax gun laws and a country with more guns per capita than any advanced country in the world. It can be tough, scary, even deadly out there for police officers. Because their work involves such risks, police share a special bond and protect each other. They expect their superiors to do the same. Chief Roessler is leading an attempt at major reform of this department with a culture in which change is not easy.
The members of the Ad Hoc Commission on Police Practices, created by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors following the shooting death of John Geer and stonewalling of the tragedy by the FCPD and the County, were aware of the culture as we formulated recommendations to restore community confidence in their police by making the force more accountable and transparent. We were also aware that in the 75 years since FCPD’s creation, not one officer had been charged, much less convicted, of any wrongdoing in line-of-duty killings, all of which were investigated exclusively by fellow officers out of public view. Accordingly, the Commission, on which I served, included among its unanimously agreed 202 recommendations specific measures to address the lack of independent, transparent investigations in a force where only police officers investigate fellow officers.
I recently reviewed the latest publicly available progress report (dated June 7) on implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. (To see status of implementation of Commission Oct. 2015 final recommendations, go to http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/policecommission/ ) And, I interviewed Chief Roessler on community television on Aug. 4 about implementation progress. Overall, I found much progress as we approach two years since the final report. Just 48 of 202 recommendations remain classified as either “under review” (15), meaning not yet approved, or “in progress” (33). Unfortunately, many of those remaining are the reforms most critical to restoring public confidence.
Under the Report’s Independent Oversight and Investigations section, none of the recommendations to include independent investigators to supplement the police officers investigating police killings, or other misconduct for that matter, have been approved. Recommendations to fund investigators to work for the Commonwealth Attorney looking into police killings are technically still “under review” but not likely to see the light of day. Proposals for modest funding of independent investigators available to the new Independent Police Auditor (IPA) and the new Civilian Review Panel, both recommended by the Commission were deleted by the Board of Supervisors. Hiring of an impressive IPA, separate from FCPD, to review police investigators’ work adds new oversight. How effective he will be remains to be seen. The steel blue curtain remains closed. As of June 7, progress in implementing other sections of the Commission’s recommended reforms varied, and stalled in crucial dimensions. For example: Key Communications reforms involving timely public information on police actions remain “under review,” with approval doubtful. The Recruitment and Diversity (an obvious FCPD weakness) section of the Report actually offered no game-changing measures to improve diversity. Under Mental Health, steps to expand and deepen a promising start to diversion first for mentally ill offenders to treatment rather than county jail still lack approval. In the broad Use of Force section, approval to require recommended drug testing for officers involved in shooting deaths is still under review; as is the adoption of body cameras for all officers and SWAT teams. Body cameras can add great value to transparency and accountability, but raise complex management and possible abuse issues. But, two years after our report, there has been no movement, not even a pilot test.
A new progress report is due in October. We might see movement, but don’t bet on it. Four police associations (wannabe unions) active in FCPD remain resistant to key reforms and, given frequent news of suspicious police killings around the U.S. by what I believe is a tiny minority of police officers, may harden their positions as a siege mentality spreads and is encouraged by the White House.